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NRF: Holiday sales rise 14% to beat forecast; apparel sales up 33%

Retail sales during the 2021 holiday season increased 14.1% over the previous year.

The retail industry closed out the year with a record holiday season that included double-digit year-over-year growth in most categories.

Retail sales from November 1 through December 31 grew 14.1% over 2020 to $886.7 billion, according to the National Retail Federation. The sales, which easily beat the NRF’s forecast, set a new record despite challenges from inflation, supply chain disruptions and the ongoing pandemic.

The NRF number includes online and other non-store sales, which were up 11.3% to $218.9 billion. The total exclude automobile dealers, gasoline stations and restaurants.

Both the amount spent and the growth rate in 2021 were new highs, topping the previous records of $777.3 billion spent in 2020 and 8.2% growth that year.  NRF originally forecast that 2021 holiday sales would increase between 8.5% and 10.5% over 2020 to $843.4 billion to $859 billion.  In December, it said that holiday growth could be as much as 11.5% over the same period in 2020. The 2021 growth compares with an average 4.4% holiday sales growth during the previous five years.

“Retail sales displayed solid momentum throughout the holiday season,” stated NRF chief economist Jack Kleinhenz.“Worries about inflation and COVID-19 put pressure on consumer attitudes but did not dampen spending, and sales were remarkably strong. Even though many consumers began shopping in October, this was the strongest November and December we’ve ever seen.”

Despite supply chain challenges, retailers kept their shelves stocked and consumers were able to fill their carts both in-store and online, added Kleinhenz. 

“Holiday spending during 2021 reflected continued consumer demand that is driving the economy and should continue in 2022,” he said. “Nonetheless, we should be prepared for challenges in the coming months due to the substantial uncertainty brought by the pandemic.”

December Sales
With many consumers starting their holiday shopping early in the season, retail sales were down 2.7% seasonally adjusted in December from November, but up 13.4% unadjusted year-over-year. That compared with a 0.3% month-over-month decrease in November, which was up 14.8% year-over-year. As of December, sales were up 13% unadjusted year-over-year on a three-month moving average.

NRF’s numbers are based on data from the. U.S. Census Bureau, which said that overall retail sales in December – including autos, gas and restaurants – were down 1.9% seasonally adjusted from November but up 16.9% year-over-year. That compares with increases of 0.2% month-over-month and 18.2% year-over-year in November. Despite occasional month-over-month declines, sales have grown year-over-year every month since June 2020, according to Census data.

November-December holiday sales saw year-over-year gains across the board, led by increases at clothing, sporting goods and general merchandise stores. Specifics from key sectors for the two months combined, all on an unadjusted year-over-year basis, include:

  • Clothing and clothing accessory stores, up 33.1%. 
  • Sporting goods stores, up 20.9%.
  • General merchandise stores, up 15.2%.
  • Furniture and home furnishings stores, up 15%.
  • Electronics and appliance stores, up 13.8%.
  • Building materials and garden supply stores, up 13.5%.
  • Online and other non-store sales, up 11.3%
  • Health and personal care stores, up 9.6%
  • Grocery and beverage stores, up 8.6%.
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