Skip to main content

What Are Retail Sales? Definition & Examples

Retail sales are an important economic indicator used to measure consumer spending.
Photo of a shopper at a supermarket with text overlay that reads "What Are Retail Sales?"

Retail sales data are released monthly to gauge consumer spending and help to measure economic growth.

What Are Retail Sales?

Retail sales are an important monthly indicator of the U.S. economy, helping to gauge how much consumers are spending on items such as cars, clothes, food, mobile phones, computers, and gasoline. 

It’s also an indicator of how fast consumer prices might be rising. As such, retail sales are considered a leading indicator on how fast consumer prices might be rising and reflect the potential spending habits of consumers.

When Are Retail Sales Released?

Retail sales are released in the middle of each month at 8:30 a.m. ET by the Census Bureau, which is part of the U.S. Department of Commerce. The formal title of the report is the Advanced Monthly Sales for Retail and Food Services. Data for the latest reporting month are estimates, while data for the previous month or months tend to be revised to reflect accuracy and actual pricing.

The following are the release dates for the remaining months of 2022:

Census Bureau

Reporting MonthRelease Date

September 2022

October 14, 2022

October 2022

November 16, 2022

November 2022

December 15, 2022

December 2022

January 18, 2023

January 2023

February 15, 2023

February 2023

March 15, 2023

March 2023

April 14, 2023

April 2023

May 16, 2023

May 2023

June 15, 2023

June 2023

July 18, 2023

July 2023

August 15, 2023

August 2023

September 14, 2023

September 2023

October 17, 2023

October 2023

November 15, 2023

November 2023

December 14, 2023

December 2023

To be announced at a later date

How Are Retail Sales Compiled?

Retail sales include durable and non-durable goods, food, and retail items sold in the latest reporting month and are expressed in dollars. Percentage changes are calculated from the previous month and the same month of the previous year, but investors and analysts usually focus their attention on the month-to-month change. An increase in the price of an item month-over-month could show that consumers are spending more per item, the price per item has risen, or both. A decrease could indicate the reverse.

The Census Bureau compiles results of surveys sent to approximately 5,500 employer firms selected from its larger Monthly Retail Trade Survey, of which questionnaires are mailed to about 12,500 retail businesses with paid employees. The data are seasonally adjusted, meaning that the numbers are adjusted to account for seasonal variation and holiday and trading-day differences.

Retail Sales Example: January–April 2022

Below is a table showing by segment the cumulative composition of $2.5 trillion in sales for the first four months (January–April) of 2022:

Compilation based on Census Bureau data

Retail CategoryPercentage

Motor vehicle and parts dealers 

20.06%

Nonstore retailers 

15.71%

Food services and drinking places 

12.38%

Food and beverage stores 

11.71%

General merchandise stores

9.93%

Gasoline stations

8.98%

Building material and garden equipment and supplies dealers 

6.23%

Health and personal care stores 

5.06%

Clothing and clothing accessories stores 

3.55%

Miscellaneous store retailers 

2.22%

Furniture and home furniture stores

 1.81%

Sporting goods, hobby, musical instrument, and book stores 

1.25%

Electronics and appliance stores 

1.10%

Automotive parts and accessories accounted for the biggest portion of retail sales, followed by nonstore retailers, which is essentially e-commerce that comprises electronic shopping and mail-order houses. Food and drink-related businesses made up almost a quarter of sales.

How to Interpret Retail Sales Data

Fluctuations in retail sales tend to occur in the first and fourth quarters of the year, reflecting the seasonality of consumer spending. An upward or downward trend could suggest strong or weak economic growth, as well as inflationary pressures.

Below is a graph of the month-to-month changes in retail sales between April 2013 and April 2022:

Graph showing compiled monthly data of retail sales.

Retail sales fluctuated sharply during the pandemic as consumers held off and splurged on purchases.

Below is a graph on the month-to-month change in the consumer price index for the same period:

Graph showing compiled monthly data of the consumer price index.

Consumer prices in the past decade climbed at their fastest during the pandemic.

Retail sales and CPI experienced sharp changes at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Retail sales picked up in most of the months since then, while inflation accelerated. In the first four months of 2022, retail sales were above their average in the corresponding months of the past decade, suggesting that prices for many goods were on the rise rather than an increase in consumer spending.

The correlation coefficient between retail sales and CPI from April 2013 to April 2022 was 0.296, which was calculated by comparing the two datasets’ month-on-month change per month over the period. There were periods in which retail sales were in lockstep with the direction of CPI, but the correlation between the two skewed to the low side.

How Do Financial Markets React to Retail Sales Report?

Higher retail sales data can be good for the stock market. Strong data would suggest that consumers are spending more, translating into higher revenue and profit for companies in retail and food services, which in turn would lead to an appreciation in their stock prices. Bond investors, on the other hand, would react negatively to retail sales suggesting a pickup in inflation, and that would send bond prices lower.

Why Are Retail Sales Important?

Retail sales are an important indicator of consumer sentiment and can serve as a sort of barometer for the economy. Higher retail sales could indicate that the economy continues to grow as Americans spend more on everyday items such as food and gasoline as well as durable goods such as washing machines and stoves.

What’s the Trend for Retail Sales?

Since the mid-2000s, consumers shifted their purchases to online sellers such as Amazon, eroding sales at traditional brick-and-mortar retailers. Some long-time retailers have either had to shutter operations or reduce the number of their stores and employees across the U.S. because of the challenges in competing with the prices set by online sellers. In the past decade alone, the proportion of e-commerce sales to total retail has jumped from about 6 percent in 2013 to about 15 percent in April 2022. That number is likely to grow further.

The Census Bureau publishes an e-commerce report each quarter, but it could better serve the public by releasing more information such as a breakdown of the items sold.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

The following are answers to some of the most common questions investors ask about retail sales.

What Are Considered Retail Sales?

Items that are sold directly to consumers, be it online or at a neighborhood store, are considered retail sales.

What Are Core Retail Sales Data?

Some investors and analysts would not include big-ticket items such as auto sales and focus only on smaller items to reflect everyday (or daily, common) purchasing. In the same way that core CPI is calculated, certain items that tend to have large price swings—such as gasoline—are removed when calculating core retail sales.

Are Restaurants and Bars Included in Retail Sales?

Restaurants and bars that cater to consumers are included in retail sales. These establishments are a good indicator as to whether households are cutting back on dining outside their homes.

When Are Retail Sales the Strongest?

Retail sales tend to be the strongest during the fourth quarter of the year in the months leading up to Christmas Day. Sales tend to be the slowest during the first quarter of the year.

How Do E-Commerce Sales Compare With Total Retail Sales?

E-commerce is increasingly gaining in its proportion of retail sales each year. As traditional brick-and-mortar stores shift more of their sales online, e-commerce sales are likely to continue to grow.

What Are Advanced Retail Sales Data?

Advanced retail sales data refer to the latest reporting month in the Advanced Monthly Sales for Retail and Food Services report, and the data are typically estimated. In subsequent months, that month’s data are likely to be revised for accuracy.