By Lucia Mutikani
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. retail sales dropped by the most in 10 months in December, weighed down by shortages and spiraling COVID-19 infections, which could temper expectations that economic growth accelerated sharply in the fourth quarter.
Americans started their holiday shopping in October to avoid empty shelves, which pulled sales away from December. Sales could weaken further in January as raging coronavirus infections, driven by the Omicron variant, limit consumer traffic to places like restaurants and bars.
“The weakness in December was likely more about the timing of spending than the level,” said Scott Hoyt, a senior economist at Moody’s (NYSE:) Analytics in West Chester, Pennsylvania. “Support is coming from job and income growth which is strong by pre-pandemic standards and abundant cash and available credit for many consumers.”
Retail sales dropped 1.9% last month, the largest decline since February 2021, after rising 0.2% in November, the Commerce Department said on Friday. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast retail sales unchanged. Estimates ranged from as low as a drop of 2.0% to as high as a 0.8% increase.
Unadjusted sales rose 10.0% last month after gaining 2.5% in November. Retail sales, which are mostly goods, increased 16.9% year-on-year in December.
Bottlenecks in the supply chains caused by the pandemic have led to shortages of goods, including motor vehicles. The pulling forward of sales could also have impacted the so-called seasonal factor, the model that the government uses to strip out seasonal fluctuations from the data. The online sales category was hardest hit by the drag from the seasonal factor, plunging 8.7%.
Receipts at auto dealerships slipped 0.4% after rising 0.2% in November. Automobiles remain scarce because of a global semiconductor shortage.
Sales at electronics and appliance stores dropped 2.9%. Receipts at service stations fell 0.7% as gasoline prices retreated from higher levels seen in the prior months. Sales at food and beverage stores fell 0.5%.
Sales at clothing stores declined 3.1%. There were also declines is sales as at sporting goods, hobby, musical instrument and book stores.
Furniture store sales tumbled 5.5%, while receipts at electronics and appliance stores plunged 2.9%. But sales at building material and garden equipment suppliers rose 0.9%.
Receipts at restaurants and bars decreased 0.8%. Restaurants and bars are the only services category in the retail sales report. These sales were up 41.3% from last December.
Excluding automobiles, gasoline, building materials and food services, retail sales plunged 3.1%. Data for November was revised lower to show these so-called core retail sales falling 0.5% instead of dipping 0.1% as previously reported.
Core retail sales correspond most closely with the consumer spending component of gross domestic product.
Economists say the surge in core retail sales in October was enough to ensure strong economic growth in the fourth quarter.
“While household spending will be stronger in the fourth quarter compared to the third quarter, the data are signaling a sharp deceleration heading into the first quarter,” said Rubeela Farooqi, chief U.S. economist at High Frequency Economics in White Plains, New York.
Though inflation has outpaced wage gains, spending remains underpinned by massive savings and increased job security.
Economic growth estimates for the October-December quarter were topping a 7.0% annualized rate before the retail sales data. The economy grew at a 2.3% pace in the third quarter.
Growth last year is expected to have been the strongest since 1984.