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First Retail Sales Report of 2024 Has Mixed Bag of Results

Written by Rob Stott

February 16, 2024

Here’s the thing about these reports. No matter what the numbers say, it’s possible for whoever is behind the keyboard to try to slice and dice the numbers in a way to try to paint a certain picture that better fits the story they’re trying to tell. At the risk of undercutting the narrative I’m hoping to share here, I think it’s also important to know that data, while hard to refute, can tell multiple stories itself.

And that’s essentially what we’re dealing with when we look at the January 2024 Retail Sales Data report from the U.S. Census Bureau (CB).

On the surface, the numbers show that overall retail sales for the month of January were down 0.8 percent compared to the previous month, but up 0.6 percent compared to last year. The CB itself notes in its release that the month of January experienced a hit due to inclement weather experienced across the country.

That said, let’s start slicing and dicing.

The picture that I like to look at when it comes to these monthly CB reports is the one that the National Retail Federation crafts. NRF takes the CB data and pears it down to what it calls the “core retail sales” figures – the same Census data, except it removes automobile sales, gas sales and restaurants. Under that lens, core retail sales were down the same 0.8 percent month over month, but up 2.8 percent year-over-year.

“Retail sales softened in January compared with the holiday season, but consumers were still engaged,” NRF Chief Economist Jack Kleinhenz said in a statement. “Extreme weather likely disrupted product demand and consumption patterns. January prices for goods came down, which affects sales figures even if the same number of items are sold, and increased prices for services pulled dollars away from retail purchases. Nonetheless, January’s numbers point to the U.S. economy and labor market continuing to chug along.”

Something not mentioned by either NRF or CB is the fact that we’re looking at the month of January, which is the follow up month to one of the busiest months on the retail calendar.

Focusing in on the individual retail categories that the CB report highlights, there’s some positive news for the furniture and home furnishings industry. That category experienced a 1.5 percent growth month-over-month in January, accounting for just over $11 billion in sales. That was the highest monthly increase among all categories in the report. Electronics and appliance stores, conversely, were off just slightly for the month, checking in at $7.34 billion in adjusted sales in January compared to $7.37 billion in December.

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