No, holiday sales aren’t a total disaster

December 12, 2013

Run! Run like the wind! (Richard A. Lipski/For The WashingtonPost)

Remember Thanksgiving, or more specifically the days immediately following Thanksgiving? There was quite a lot of hand-wringing done over signs (hints, really) that consumers didn't flock to the malls and department stores the way they have in years past, and that as such the entire holiday season -- crucial to retailers' overall prospects -- would be disappointing.

Some sample headlines: "Black Friday Weekend Spending Drop Pressures U.S. Stores," "Black Friday sales were even worse than they look." "Black Friday weekend sales disappoint. Can retailers recover?"

Those disappointing assessments were driven by fragmented and unreliable data, on things like store traffic and credit card charges during narrow periods. Now some more over-arching data on consumer behavior in November is available, in the form of the Census Bureau's retail sales report.

Surprise! For the entire month of November retailers did just fine. Overall sales rose 0.7 percent over October, better than analysts had forecast. Excluding volatile autos, the number was up 0.4 percent. Exclude gasoline, autos, and building materials, all similarly volatile, and everything else was up 0.5 percent. There were particularly strong results among auto dealers (up 1.8 percent) and restaurants and bars (up 1.3 percent). Things were weaker among grocery stores (down 0.3 percent) and gasoline stations (down 1.1 percent)

Get the picture? Retail sales held up just fine in November. Sure, individual retailers may be facing big problems (I'm looking at you, J.C. Penney). But the problem is one of shifting consumer preferences in where and how they buy things, not some collapse in Americans' overall spending.

It's almost as if what happens in the Thanksgiving weekend tells you next to nothing about what will happen in the holiday sales season as a whole. But then, Wonkblog readers already knew that.

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Ezra Klein · December 12, 2013