US retail sales likely increased in November, but falling gas prices limiting growth

EnergyAssociated Press

The Commerce Department releases retail sales data for November on Thursday at 8:30 a.m. Eastern.

INCREASE LIKELY: Economists forecast that retail sales rose a seasonally-adjusted 0.4 percent last month, according to a survey by the data firm FactSet.

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That would follow a slight 0.3 percent gain in October. Retail sales have slowly improved this year, despite solid job growth that usually leads to more consumer spending. Employers have added an average of 241,000 jobs a month so far in 2014, causing the unemployment rate to fall to 5.8 percent from 6.7 percent at the start of the year.

Wage gains have been meager, however, which could explain why retail sales have been less than robust.

HOLIDAY SHOPPING AND GAS PRICES: Retail sales usually rise ahead of the year-end holidays, but the tumbling price of gasoline, which is a component in the report, might cause growth to be extremely muted in November.

Average national gas prices have slid to $2.64 a gallon, down nearly 30 cent, or 9.8 percent, over the past month, according to the AAA's Daily Fuel Gauge. Plummeting fuel costs mean that sales at gas stations might have plunged 8 percent in November, which would suppress overall growth in retail sales.

Yet when people save money at the pump, they have more to spend on tech gadgets, clothing, and at restaurants.

Many analysts believe that holiday spending could rise by at least 4 percent this year because of recent job growth. The hiring spree since February has bolstered the number of people with steady paychecks by nearly 2.65 million and consumer confidence has also improved.

But initial indicators suggest that the Thanksgiving and Black Friday weekend was bleak for traditional retailers.

The number of people shopping in stores and online slid 5.2 percent from last year to estimated 133.7 million people shopped in stores and online, according to a survey of 4,631 people conducted by Prosper Insights & Analytics for the National Retail Federation. Total spending for the weekend was projected to fall 11 percent to $50.9 billion from a year ago.

That hints at the absence of meaningful wage gains for many workers. Average hourly wages have risen just 2.1 percent over the past 12 months, slightly ahead of inflation.

But consumer tastes might also be shifting as people forgo smaller expenditures to replace bigger ticket items such as automobiles.

Motor vehicles sold in November at an annualized clip of 17.2 million, a 4.6 percent increase from the prior year, according to Autodata Corp.

Subaru and Chrysler led the major automakers with sales increases around 20 percent on strong demand for their small SUVs.

Car-buying site Kelley Blue Book estimated that as much as 30 percent of last month's sales occurred during the Thanksgiving holiday weekend.