Signs point to strong US shopping season

New York (AFP) –


Americans shopped with greater gusto at malls and online this holiday season amid a strong labor market and cold winter weather, retail sales experts said Tuesday.

Shoppers in the world's biggest economy spent generously over the "Black Friday" weekend in late November that kicks off the US holiday shopping season, and buying picked up further in December, analysts said.

Mastercard SpendingPulse estimated sales growth for the season at 4.9 percent, the strongest annual boost since 2011.

"Overall, this year was a big win for retail," said Sarah Quinlan, senior vice president of market insights at Mastercard.

"The strong US economy was a contributing factor, but we also have to recognize that retailers who tried new strategies to engage holiday shoppers were the beneficiaries of this sales increase."

IHS Markit pointed to strong macroeconomic factors such as a 17-year high in US consumer confidence in November and a 17-year low in unemployment that allowed consumers to open their wallets.

Chilly weather in much of the country also supported sales of jackets and other winter apparel, said Chris Christopher, executive director at IHS Markit.

"There was a significant ramp-up of holiday sales," said Christopher, who shifted his projection midway through December to 4.7 percent growth for the season from an earlier mark of 4.2 percent growth.

"Everything is pointing to a good holiday season."

The passage of a massive tax cut bill by Republicans in Congress and pushed by President Donald Trump also likely lifted spending somewhat, although Christopher noted that "things were going strong before that."

The upbeat appraisals boosted shares of leading retailers, a sector that has seen myriad bankruptcies and store closures with the growth of Amazon and other online retailers, at the expense of the traditional American shopping mall.

Most brick-and-mortar chains saw their share prices rise in afternoon trading Monday, including Wal-Mart Stores, up 0.9 percent, Macy's, up 4.7 percent, Gap, up 1.6 percent and Best Buy, up 1.2 percent.

Amazon gained 0.6 percent after announcing a number of records of its own, pointing to strong increases of "Prime" subscribers and of sales of its artificial intelligence "Echo" devices.

Analysts also noted the favorable calendar with Christmas falling on Monday and allowing last-minute shopping over the weekend.