For the first time since spring, U.S. retail sales have declined, raising questions about the strength of consumer spending and how retailers are faring in the all-important holiday shopping season.
Retail sales fell 1.1 percent in November as spending on categories like automobiles, electronic stores, clothing and restaurants and bars softened, according to a report from the Commerce Department on Wednesday.
Economists had expected a smaller decline amid robust holiday sales, driven by online spending. But the Commerce Department also revised its tally for October to a 0.1 percent decline, from an increase of 0.3 percent reported earlier.
The U.S. economy has slowed in recent months amid a surge in coronavirus cases and a steady increase in the ranks of the unemployed. Even as businesses have come under fresh pressure, lawmakers have yet to reach an agreement on a new stimulus package.
The uncertainty around holiday spending has been exacerbated as retailers pushed annual sales events into October, in a bid to jump-start the season and prevent crowded stores and shipping delays in November. Many major chains reported sales gains in October, but they were not certain about how it would affect spending in November and December.
Black Friday, which has traditionally signaled the start of the holiday shopping season, was also largely a bust for many retailers amid the rise in cases. Some companies reported that in-person traffic that day declined by as much as 50 percent from last year, as shoppers concerned about the virus stayed away from the stores.
With the new concerns around shopping in person, retailers have been racing to accommodate a surge in shipping demand, grappling with new surcharges and delays with major carriers including UPS and FedEx.
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