2013 was a challenging year for retailers that concluded with one of the most interesting holiday seasons on record. Looking ahead in 2014, the economic outlook is strengthening and the moderate growth seen during the second half of 2013 should provide greater confidence as we move further into the New Year.
NRF expects retail industry sales (which exclude automobiles, gas stations and restaurants) for 2014 to increase 4.1 percent over the previous year—slightly higher than the preliminary 3.7 percent growth the industry garnered in 2013. Digital channels will also experience solid growth this year, with online sales expected to increase between 9 and 12 percent, the same pace as the preliminary 10.3 percent gain in 2013.*
But before we look ahead, let’s look at 2013. The economy progressed slowly early in the year but gave way to stronger results in the second half. Specifically, the overall economy grew a mere 1.1 percent annual rate during the first quarter last year, rising to 4.1 percent in the third quarter and moderating to 3.2 percent in the fourth quarter. And, job creation, still very much needed in this economic recovery, had an average monthly growth rate of 182,500 last year, seen by many as ‘unspectacular.’
The pace of retail sales growth was only 4 percent faster than it was in 2012, based on the three-month moving average, year-over-year. And though that appears steady, we know that retail spending throughout 2013 was incredibly volatile, falling off in the spring to just 3.2 percent year-over-year average growth.
Consumers started the year faced with higher taxes, surging gasoline prices and federal budget cuts, and while these factors eventually evened themselves out in relation to the impact on consumer spending, interest rate increases in May and June, and the Federal policy impasse in the fall pulled the economy in the opposite direction. Despite these challenges, consumer spending remained resilient and continues to contribute greatly to the current momentum.
Although early reports for the holiday season came in blurry, American consumers gave the economy a boost in the final months of the year. It was a tricky holiday season to navigate by retailers and consumers alike; initial concerns about a hangover from October’s federal government shutdown, a shortened holiday season calendar and unusually strong winter storms all proved to be quiet challenging for companies looking to make the most of consumers limited discretionary budgets. As early as October, intense promotion and discounting ensued, continuing well into the season. This synopsis is available to NRF members in the Monthly Economic Review report.
Looking ahead to 2014, while the economy looks better for retailers, consumers could be conditioned to expect a continuation of holiday promotions and discounts, putting pressure on many retailers’ bottom lines once again.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the fundamental building blocks for the year ahead:
- Economic growth is expected to be above its long-term historical average. My baseline estimate for growth in the economy as measured by real GDP is between 2.6 and 3 percent, a noticeable improvement from the estimated 1.9 percent rate for 2013, and the fastest pace in the past three years.
- The labor market is expected to continue its modest recovery averaging approximately 185,000 jobs per month, helping drop unemployment to near 6.5 percent or lower by the end of 2014.
- Inflation as measured by the CPI is predicted to inch higher to as much as 1.7 percent in 2014.
- The housing sector is expected to continue to improve in 2014, and stronger household and business confidence should spur more consumers spending overall.
While I am cautiously optimistic, we cannot discount the unexpected possibility of a replay of the last two years. Though government headwinds subsided in part due to the bipartisan budget agreement, there are other issues creating uncertainty. The expired Emergency Unemployment Compensation, the debt ceiling, and other regulatory uncertainty pose downside risks to the outlook.
Regarding Federal Reserve monetary policy, the data outlined above is consistent with their decision to reduce asset purchases. However, their challenge is to bring about a normalization of short-term interest rates without creating undue market volatility, letting inflation get out of control and undoing all the positive effects of their multi-year efforts. Of course geo-political issues are ever present. Slower global growth, a tightening of financial conditions or a pop in oil prices are all major risks to the outlook.
Bottom line: given the strong performance of recent economic data and the appearance of a healthier consumer and business outlook, 2014 could finally be the year that the recovery gets traction. While I am confident in the economy’s progress, the pace is not expected to reduce the slack that accumulated during the recent recession.
*NRF forecasted 3.4 percent increase in retail sales for 2013 and online sales to grow between 9.0 and 12.0 percent. Final 2013 revisions will be available from the U.S. Census on or about April 30, 2014