Retail sales up 0.3% in November as Americans hit gas rather than brakes on spending

Many economists worry about how shoppers are paying for all the stuff as credit card balances and rates are at all-time highs.

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Shoppers and sightseers in New York walk on 5th Avenue, Monday.

Shoppers and sightseers in New York walk on 5th Avenue, Monday.

Yuki Iwamura/AP

NEW YORK — Americans picked up their spending from October to November unexpectedly as the unofficial holiday season kicked off, underscoring that shoppers still have power to keep buying.

Retail sales rose 0.3%, in November from October, when sales were down a revised 0.2% according to the Commerce Department on Thursday. Sales were expected to decline again in November due to a myriad of issues, including uncertainty over the economy. Excluding car and gas sales, sales rose 0.6%.

As they have been doing for much of the year American consumers, a huge engine for economic growth in the U.S., hit the stores, shopped online or went out to restaurants.

Business at restaurants rose 1.6%, while sales at furniture stores rose 0.9%. Online sales rose 1%. Business at clothing and accessories stores rose 0.6%. Electronic and appliance sales, however, fell 1.1% Sales at department stores fell 2.5%. The figures aren’t adjusted for inflation.

The urge to spend for Americans appears to have some running room, even after a blowout summer. Consumer spending jumped in the July-September quarter. Economists have been expecting spending to slow in the final three months of the year as credit card debt and delinquencies rise, and savings fall.

“While consumers continue to face hurdles from higher borrowing costs, tighter credit conditions and elevated prices, a still-strong labor market, a positive trend in incomes and an easing in price pressures should keep spending and growth positive for now,” wrote Rubeela Farooqi, chief U.S. economist for High Frequency Economics.

U.S. employment data last week showed that employers added 199,000 jobs in November and the unemployment rate declined to 3.7%. Inflation has plummeted in little over a year from a troubling 9.1%, to 3.2%. While that’s still above the desired level, the economy by most counts is likely to avoid the recession many economists had feared, a potential side effect of U.S. attempts to cool inflation.

Yet people remain gloomy, according to the University of Michigan’s Index of Consumer Sentiment. The preliminary December figures issued Friday showed moods have improved as more people see inflation cooling.

Moreover, many economists worry about how shoppers are paying for all the stuff. Stores have been discounting holiday merchandise earlier and heavier. Mark Cohen, director of retail studies at Columbia Business School, believes that stores have been intensifying their discounting to get shoppers to buy.

Ted Rossman, senior industry analyst at Bankrate, noted that credit card balances and rates are at all-time highs.

“It feels like the holiday debt hangover could be particularly nasty this year,” he said.

Yet the National Retail Federation, the nation’s largest retail trade group, still expects shoppers will spend more during the 2023 winter holidays than last year.

The group forecast in November that U.S. holiday sales will rise 3% to 4% for November through December. That is slower than the 5.4% growth over the same period a year ago, but more consistent with the average annual holiday increase of 3.6% from 2010 to pre-pandemic 2019.

Retailers still have six of the top 10 busiest days of the season ahead of them, including Dec. 26, according to Sensormatic Solutions, which tracks store traffic. On average, the top 10 busiest shopping days in the U.S. account for roughly 40% of all holiday retail traffic, it said.

The government’s monthly retail sales report offers only a partial look at consumer spending; it doesn’t include many services, including health care, travel and hotel lodging.

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