Understanding Retail Sales

Michael Brown
Senior Research Strategist
The retail sales report, unsurprisingly, does exactly what is says on the tin, providing information pertaining to the value (and in some countries volume) of sales within the retail sector during a given month. In the US, retail sales figures are typically released around two weeks after the end of the reference month, at 8:30am ET.

For most major economies, the retail sales report is broken down into headline and core components. As with many inflation releases, headline sales comprises information relating to the sales of all goods in the retail sector, while the core measure is intended to provide a more accurate read on underlying trends. To do this, core sales strip out some of the more volatile elements of the data; while this varies from country-to-country, excluded elements typically include spending on automobiles, auto fuel, building materials, and in some cases food. In both cases, the sales data refers to the nominal value of spending (i.e., not being adjusted for inflation).

In another similarity with inflation releases, retail sales tend to be provided as a percentage change on both an MoM and YoY basis, with the data being seasonally adjusted to account for significant swings in consumer spending over the course of the year, for example a surge in purchases over the Christmas period. Market participants, owing to the relatively volatile nature of the data, typically monitor the MoM figures more closely, as these are more likely to provide an early indication of any inflection points in consumer spending trends, which can then be extrapolated for their potential broader impact on the economy.

Economists are also able to gauge the health of various sectors - important for equity traders - with the sales report being broken down into a number of categories, dependent on the goods that have been purchased. One can also use this information to gleam insight on how the economy is performing - if spending on staple items (e.g., food & healthcare) is rising nicely, while discretionary spending (i.e., electronics and furniture) is stagnating or falling, this may imply consumers tightening their belts, and increasing pessimism about the economic outlook.