November Retail Sales Helped by Cold Weather, Improving Job Market

Retail sales growth picked up in November, according to data released Thursday morning by the U.S. Department of Commerce, with big increases at automobile dealers, electronics retailers, home building stores and restaurants driving most of the gains. Lower gasoline prices, a pickup in the job market and the arrival of cool weather in much of the country helped invigorate sales.

Total adjusted retail sales were $448.3 billion, an increase of 5.7% on a 12-month smoothed basis, its biggest jump in four months. Total retail inventory increased by 3 percent in October, the most recent month available, resulting in a slightly lower inventory-to-sales ratio for the month.

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Total retail sales growth was helped by the continued rebound in autos sales, which rose by 11 percent. Even excluding autos, however, sales rose by an impressive 4.4% on a 12-month smoothed basis. The biggest gains were experienced by electronics and home/building stores, where sales rose 7.8%, and in the restaurant sector, which was up by over 9 percent on a 12-month smoothed basis. Non-store sales, driven by pure-play e-commerce merchants, saw sales rise by 8.7%, their biggest jump in eight months.

Once again, department, chain and discount stores fared the worst of any major sector, with sales down a smoothed 0.8%. However, this is the best showing by the channel in five months. Although October  inventory at big stores dropped by 4.6%, the sales to inventory ratio remained at prior month levels.

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Apparel specialty store sales rose by 3.7%, their best showing in four months. Many specialty chains have reported a pickup in November sales due to the drop in temperatures around the country that have stimulated sales of cold weather apparel and accessories. Specialty store inventories edged down by 1 percent in July, resulting in a slight decline in the inventory to sales ratio for the sector.

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The apparel specialty increase was more than enough to offset the big store decline’s impact on the combined sector. Department, chain, discount and specialty store sales, a reliable barometer of apparel sales, edged out a collective gain of 1.8%, their best performance in eight months.

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Apparel retailers have been plagued so far this year by the intense competitive environment and increasing value-consciousness of consumers. If November’s improvement extends into December, many will be ending the year on a high note.

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