The uncertainty around holiday spending has been exacerbated as retailers pushed annual sales events into October, in a bid to jump-start the season and prevent crowded stores and shipping delays in November. Many major chains reported sales gains in October, but they were not certain about how that would affect spending in November and December.
Business & Economy
Dec. 16, 2020, 2:57 p.m. ET
Mr. Faucher also noted that the boom in shopping this spring after virus restrictions were lifted reduced “the need for purchases at the end of the year.” Amazon’s “Prime Day,” an annual event for online deals, was held in October, and spurred most major chains to introduce bargains around the same time, which may have also encouraged earlier holiday spending.
The report on Wednesday showed the steepest declines at electronics and appliance stores, gas stations, clothing stores, department stores and bars and restaurants. The decline in apparel spending has been part of a broader shift this year, as many Americans remain isolated at home, aren’t going to the office for work, have postponed events and are avoiding shopping at malls.
Spending at bars and restaurants tumbled 4 percent from October and was down about 17 percent compared with a year earlier, reflecting the strain on these establishments. With restrictions on indoor dining taking effect again in cities like New York and public officials warning of a difficult winter ahead, spending at restaurants is likely to remain lower for several months. Spending on gasoline also declined in November, as more families opted not to travel for Thanksgiving; many people are planning to stay home for Christmas also. Auto sales fell 1.7 percent in November, after months of gains.
Consumers have not been following normal shopping patterns this year, making month-to-month sales difficult to predict. Some analysts had not expected the rebound in sales to have lasted so long, given the grim economic realities for millions of Americans. By the summer, retail sales had returned to pre-pandemic levels, helped by previous rounds of stimulus, job growth and low interest rates.
But the holiday season, which can make or break a retailer’s business for the year, has been difficult to gauge. Black Friday, which has traditionally signaled the start of the holiday shopping season, was also largely a bust for many retailers as cases were flaring. Some companies reported that in-person traffic that day declined by as much as 50 percent from last year, as shoppers concerned about the virus stayed away from the stores. Still, online sales have been strong through the holidays and November sales were up 4 percent over last year’s figures.
The National Retail Federation, an industry trade group, pointed to the online increase from last year as a sign that the holiday season was off to a strong start for retailers. But the organization also said in a Wednesday release that additional fiscal stimulus from Congress was needed, particularly as the remainder of the season remains so unsure because of the spread of the virus.