By ANNE D’INNOCENZIO – AP Retail Writer
NEW YORK (AP) — Americans shrugged off shortages, soaring prices and uncertainty surrounding the omicron variant to break spending records during the critical holiday shopping season. But figures released on Friday show that after spending vigorously at the start of the holiday season, consumers slowed down their purchases sharply from November to December.
The National Retail Federation, the nation’s largest retail group, said sales rose a record 14.1% between November and December 2020 and the same months in 2021. Those figures swept away projections the federation’s growth rate of between 8.5% and 10.5%, and more than tripled the average gain over the past five years of 4.4%.
“After a disheartening holiday season in 2020, most shoppers were absolutely determined to have fun no matter what,” said Neil Saunders, CEO of GlobalData.
Yet data released by the Commerce Department showed that by the end of December, spending had fallen enough to catch economists off guard and raise doubts about the sustainability of retail sales in the face of the omicron, the inflation and persistent shortages of labor and supplies. Retail sales fell 1.9%, seasonally adjusted, from November to December.
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Spending fell across many sectors overall: department store sales fell 7%, restaurants 0.8% and online shopping 8.7% from November.
Many economists expect the caution shown by consumers last month to continue this year and potentially slow the economy. Still, with the average hourly wage rising and the unemployment rate steadily falling, analysts say spending and growth could pick up, at least modestly, once the omicron fades.
“U.S. consumers ended 2021 on a very sour note,” said Sal Guatieri, senior economist at BMO Capital Markets. “That said, elevated household savings, strong job growth and improved confidence once the latest peaks in the COVID wave should put consumers back on a strong spending path in the second quarter.”
Retailers have warned for months that their supply chains have collapsed as the country rapidly emerges from the pandemic recession, and they have urged consumers to shop early for their holiday shopping. It seems that many Americans have taken this into account and, in fact, brought forward the usual holiday shopping period by about a month.
The Commerce Department figure shows retail sales jumped 1.8% in October, and on Friday it reported year-over-year figures show retail sales jumped 16, 9% last month compared to December 2020. For the whole of 2021, sales increased by 19.3% compared to the previous year.
Some economists warn that the seasonal adjustment of retail sales has been disrupted by the pandemic. The seasonal adjustment is intended to take into account the normal increase in purchases in December for the holiday season. This year, however, since many Americans started shopping so early, the seasonal adjustment may have overstated any drop in spending in December.
Some analysts also suspect shoppers who waited until the holidays were over and didn’t find what they wanted and grabbed a pass or bought gift cards. These expenses will not appear in retail data until these cards are redeemed.
All told, Americans seem to be spending their money differently — and spending more, not less, collectively.
Mastercard SpendingPulse, which tracks all sorts of payments including cash and debit cards, reported late last month that holiday sales jumped 8.5% from November 1 to December 24 compared to last month. ‘last year. It was the fastest pace in 17 years.
“Consumer spending will remain the cornerstone of economic growth this year, but the near-term trajectory will be choppy amid rising omicron cases,” said Lydia Boussour, chief US economist at Oxford Economics. first quarter, spending should rebound in the spring thanks to the strength of wage growth and savings.
Stephen Stanley, chief economist at Amherst Pierpoint, agreed, pointing to a robust labor market, pent-up demand and “a mountain of extra money to spend”.
“People will spend again once the omicron wave subsides,” Stanley predicted.
The omicron variant resulted in a widespread shortage of workers, with many people reporting sick. And supply shortages have reduced the number of goods hitting store shelves. Shops and restaurants reduced their opening hours or remained closed on days they were previously open.
This week, Lululemon warned that fourth-quarter sales and earnings are likely to be at the low end of its expectations as it grapples with the fallout from the variant.
“We started the holiday season from a strong position, but have since experienced several consequences of the omicron variant, including increased capacity constraints, more limited staff availability and reduced opening hours in some locations,” said CEO Calvin McDonald.
And inflation has taken hold at almost every level of the economy, forcing the Federal Reserve to no longer call the rise in prices “transitional”.
Last month, inflation jumped to its fastest pace in nearly 40 years, a 7% peak over the previous year which is increasing household spending and weighing on wage gains. And the biggest price increases are hitting where Americans can feel it most, with the cost of homes, cars, clothes and food soaring.
Raquel Schuttler, who works in fashion sales, says soaring food prices have had a psychological impact on her spending everywhere.
The 53-year-old Atlanta resident, who does grocery shopping for her 17-year-old son and his fiancée, used to make intermittent trips to the grocery store between big purchases. Those little trips now cost her about $280, down from $220, she said. She gave up lunches at the mall with friends to avoid the temptation to shop there.
“I’m much more conservative,” Schuttler said. “I’ve stopped any kind of impulsive outing.”
Follow Anne D’Innocenzio on Twitter. AP Business Writer Christopher Rugaber contributed to this report.
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