But Matthew Shay, NRF’s president, said this year might be different, as perhaps consumers start to think of low gas prices not as just a temporary blip, but as a new baseline for their household budgets.
“They’re going to feel more confident about spending some of those savings,” Shay said on a conference call with reporters.
NRF also predicts that the labor market and broader economic conditions will continue to strengthen, further helping the retail industry deliver sales growth.
Still, the group acknowledges there are plenty of challenges ahead as stores try to get shoppers to spend big this year: For one, Shay said, consumers are increasingly choosing to spend their disposable income on travel and dining out. And plenty of their dollars will continue to go toward services such as healthcare and toward paying down debt.
“We recognize that consumers are doing things differently than they have in the past,” Shay said.
A sales increase of 3.1 percent in 2016 would be essentially on par with what was seen in 2015, based on preliminary Commerce Department estimates for last year. And it would be stronger than the 10-year average of 2.7 percent.
Jack Kleinhenz, NRF’s chief economist, said he expects the first quarter of 2016 to be relatively soft for the industry, similar to what occurred in the last couple of years. He predicts retailers will see business improve from there, with the greatest strength for the industry coming in the back half of the year.
Non-store sales, a category that includes e-commerce, is expected to grow between 6 and 9 percent.
The NRF’s forecast excludes sales at auto dealerships, gas stations and restaurants.