What are Core Retail Sales?

Core retail sales measures the aggregate retail sales in the U.S. while excluding the highly volatile automobile and gasoline sales figures.

Key Takeaways

  • Core retail sales measures the aggregate retail sales in the U.S. while excluding the highly volatile automobile and gasoline sales figures.
  • Core retail sales are a strong indicator of economic health and can be used to gauge whether the economy is contracting or expanding.
  • Core retail sales are made of up non-durable and durable goods from industries like food and beverage to electronics.

Understanding Core Retail Sales

Core retail sales figures are released monthly by the U.S. Department of Commerce about two weeks after the end of the reference month. As consumer spending accounts for more than two-thirds of the U.S. economy, the core retail sales data is an important indicator of the health of the overall economy.

Core retail sales data is used extensively by various government bureaus to calculate gross domestic product (GDP), develop consumer price indexes, and analyze current economic activity, while the Federal Reserve uses the numbers to assess recent trends in consumer purchases. Retail sales make up nearly one-half of personal consumption, which in turn accounts for nearly 70% of GDP. Retail sales, in terms of direct economic activity, accounts for almost one-third of GDP.

Different countries and their statistics bureaus compile retail sales data differently.

The percentage increases or decreases also give a good indication of how fast the economy is contracting or expanding. Very strong or very weak retail sales can also put upward or downward pressure on prices. As retail sales surge, upward pressure on prices may eventually take hold, especially if sales figures continue rising month after month. The same is true when sales plummet for a prolonged period which puts downward pressure on prices as consumers spend less. 

Some countries have private companies handle some data while various government offices handle others. In the U.S., retail sales data is compiled and released by the U.S. Census Bureau. This data measures total retail spending in stores and receipts across the nation and the monthly rates of change are expressed as a percentage. This data covers sales for durable and non-durable goods at the retail level and ranges from food to autos.

Retail Sales vs. Core Retail Sales

The difference between the U.S. retail sales numbers and U.S. core retail sales data is that core retail sales excludes autos and gasoline. Auto and gasoline components are excluded because they are often very volatile in price fluctuations.

The Census Bureau releases retail sales data for both month-over-month (MoM) and year-over-year (YoY) percentage changes. MoM data is the more important of the two as this data series is more likely to show a surprise or unexpected reading. Markets are also more likely to react to deviations from expectations in these numbers. However, core retail sales data is released as month-to-month changes only.

Data is also collected for a Retail Sales Control Group MoM change. This group excludes autos, gasoline and construction materials. All retail sales data is released monthly, approximately two weeks after the target month.