Holiday Sales Strongest In Years As Consumers Binge On Debt

After several years of disappointing holiday sales, retail analysts told any and all financial media who would listen that this year would be different. With wages finally accelerating at their fastest pace since the financial crisis, and early indicators suggesting a boost in e-commerce ahead of the traditional holiday shopping season, with the National Retail Federation forecasting a sales bump of up to 4.8% to a combined $720 billion for November and December.

And with the holidays having only just passed, one early indicator suggests that the final total might be more optimistic than expected: According to Mastercard SpendingPulse, total US sales (excluding autos) climbed 5.1% between Nov. 1 and Dec. 24 compared with a year earlier. That means US consumers spent some $850 billion overall.


Per WSJ, this suggests that the recent market turbulence and a partial government shut down didn't curb consumers' appetite (though there were a few weak patches during the season, analysts attributed them to the timing of the Thanksgiving holiday).

"Wall Street is running around like a chicken with its head cut off, while Mr. and Mrs. Main Street are happy with their jobs, enjoying their best wage increases in a decade," said Craig Johnson, president of Customer Growth Partners, a retail research and consulting firm. A recent drop in gas prices has helped last-minute spending, he said.

Sales have been generally strong throughout the holiday season, led by increases in online shopping. Retailers entered the holidays with momentum as online sales jumped 26.4% from a year earlier between the Wednesday before Thanksgiving through Black Friday, one sign of an early buying surge, according to Adobe Analytics.

Buying slowed in early December in part because an unusually early Thanksgiving made it harder for retailers to sustain sales through the entire holiday shopping period, analysts and consultants said. But shoppers picked up the pace ahead of Christmas.

The final push arrived relatively late in the season: Given the timing of the Christmas holiday, the ability for consumers to make last-minute purchases online in the days before Christmas Eve - then pick those items up in stores - has been credited with bolstering spending.

Overall, strong growth in online shopping was a major growth factor, as total purchases climbed 20%. Meanwhile, Department Store sales grew by 10%.

With Christmas Eve falling on a Monday, many retailers geared up to capitalize on a last-minute push from shoppers who were counting on the final weekend to wrap up their gift-buying. Chains including Walmart Inc. and Target Corp. extended deadlines to get online orders delivered before Christmas, while Inc. in some cities offered Prime members the option of free same-day delivery on Christmas Eve.

Many retailers also touted the option to buy online and pick up in store through Christmas Eve. Overall, sales in that category increased 47% from Nov. 1 to Dec. 19, according to Adobe.

Mastercard found that sales from online shopping grew 19.1% between Nov. 1 and Dec. 24 compared with the year-earlier period.

But though analysts might be tempted to cite holiday spending as an example that consumption is stronger than the hard and soft data would suggest, and that the mighty US consumer just might come through and save the US economy from a late-2019 or early-2020 recession, there is one thing to consider: As the latest raft of spending data revealed, spending outpaced incomes once again in November, sending the savings rate lower, suggesting that this latest consumption binge was largely fueled by debt.


In other words, analysts who interpreted these strong holiday sales as one last binge before the end of the business cycle might soon be vindicated.