Holiday sales climb 4.1%, retail industry trade group says, on the higher end of estimates

Key Points
  • Holiday retail sales in 2019 grew 4.1%, amounting to $730.2 billion, the National Retail Federation says.
  • It was calling for growth of between 3.8% and 4.2%.
  • Online sales rose 14.6%, slightly topping an expected range of 11% to 14%.
A Walmart worker organizes products for Christmas season at a Walmart store in Teterboro, New Jersey.
Eduardo Munoz | Reuters

Holiday retail sales in 2019 grew 4.1%, amounting to $730.2 billion and coming in at the high end of a previously issued forecast, the National Retail Federation said in a press release on Thursday.

NRF, the retail industry's leading trade group, had previously forecast that retail sales excluding automobile dealers, gasoline stations and restaurants during November and December would increase between 3.8% and 4.2%. It had expected online sales to rise between 11% and 14%.

Online sales during the holidays slightly topped NRF's expectations, climbing 14.6%, to $167.8 billion, NRF said Thursday.

"This is a consumer-driven economy, and by any measure, the consumer has put the economy in a solid position for continued growth," NRF President and CEO Matt Shay said in a statement. "This is a strong finish to the holiday season, and we think it's a positive indicator of what's ahead."

The 2018 holiday season saw meager growth of just 2.1%, thanks in large part to a government shutdown, stock market volatility and interest rate hikes.

The Commerce Department said earlier Thursday that U.S. retail sales increased 0.3% last month. Data for November was also revised up to show retail sales gaining 0.3%, instead of rising 0.2% as previously reported. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast retail sales would gain 0.3% in December. Compared with December 2018, retail sales accelerated 5.8%.

NRF's numbers are based on data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

"This was a healthy holiday season, especially compared with the decline in retail sales we saw at the end of the season in 2018," NRF chief economist Jack Kleinhenz said. "Despite a late Thanksgiving and worries about tariffs, the consumer didn't go away."

Strong employment and higher wages also gave consumers "a sense of confidence about their ability to spend, and they did their part to keep the economy moving," Kleinhenz added.

A slew of companies have already reported holiday sales, and many of them have underwhelmed. Department store chains Macy's, Kohl's and J.C. Penney all reported same-store sales declines. But there were bright spots in Lululemon and Jared owner Signet Jewelers.

Amazon has also said it had a "record" holiday season, though it hasn't released any sales figures.

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