Retail sales dropped 1.9% in December as higher prices caused consumers to curb spending

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Retail sales fell much more than expected in December as surging prices took a big bite out of spending, the Commerce Department reported Friday.

The advance monthly sales report to close out the year showed a decline of 1.9%, considerably worse than the Dow Jones estimate for just a 0.1% drop.

Excluding autos, sales fell 2.3%, a number that also fell well short of expectations for a 0.3% rise.

In addition to the weak December numbers, the November gain was revised down to 0.2% from the initially reported 0.3% increase.

Considering that the sales numbers are not adjusted for inflation, the data point to a slow ending to what had otherwise been a strong 2021 in which sales rose 16.9% from the pandemic-scarred 2020.

The consumer price index rose 0.5% for the month, bringing the year-over-year gain to 7%, the highest since June 1982. Wholesale price also rose, climbing 9.7% in the 12-month period for the biggest calendar-year rise since data was kept going back to 2010.

Online spending took the biggest hit as a share of overall spending, with nonstore retailers reporting a plunge of 8.7% for the month. Furniture and home furnishing sales declined 5.5% and sporting goods, music and book stores saw a 4.3% drop.

Surging omicron cases exacted damage across the board as consumer activity declined.

Restaurants and bars, which posted a 41.3% annual gain in 2021 to lead all categories, saw a decline of 0.8% for the month. Gas stations were a close second for the year, with a 41% surge in sales, but saw a 0.7% decline in December as fuel costs moved lower. Gasoline prices fell 0.5% to close out a year when prices at the sump soared 49.6%.

Only two categories saw increases for the month: miscellaneous store retailers, which rose 1.8% and building materials and gardening centers, which posted a 0.9% gain.

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