Core Retail Sales Definition

What Is Core Retail Sales?

The term "core retail sales" refers to an economic indicator that tracks the month-to-month increase or decrease in U.S. consumer spending in most retail categories. Two monthly retail sales numbers are commonly reported by the financial news media—retail sales and core retail sales. Retail sales reflects the monthly estimate of all consumer spending, while core retail sales refers to all consumer spending excluding automobiles, gasoline, building materials, and food services. Prices for these products tend to be more volatile and skew the overall number.

Key Takeaways

  • The core retail sales number estimates the change in retail spending by American consumers from month to month.
  • It is based on Census Bureau data estimating all retail spending but omits certain volatile categories of spending that can skew the number.
  • Core retail sales represents retail sales excluding spending on automobiles, gasoline, building materials, and food services.
  • This metric is a strong indicator of economic health and is used to gauge whether the economy is contracting or expanding.
  • Sales figures are released by the Census Bureau on a month-over-month and year-over-year basis.

Understanding Core Retail Sales

The retail sales number is compiled by the U.S. Census Bureau. It is reported as a monthly and year-over-year (YOY) increase or decrease in spending. Together, core retail sales and retail sales give economists and investors a sense of the direction of the U.S. economy.

Consumer spending accounts for more than two-thirds of the U.S. economy. That makes the core retail sales number (and the more comprehensive retail sales numbers) important indicators of the health of the overall economy.

The retail sales number is based on a comprehensive report released monthly by the Census Bureau, which is a division of the U.S. Department of Commerce. The data is released in the middle of each month for the preceding month. Investors and economists watch the numbers to see whether retail sales are going up or going down, and by how much.

The data is also used extensively by various government bureaus. The numbers go into the calculation of the gross domestic product (GDP), are used to develop consumer price indexes, and help analyze current economic activity. The Federal Reserve uses the numbers to assess recent trends in consumer purchases.


The increase in core retail sales in January 2023 from December 2022.

How to Read the Retail Sales Numbers

The percentage increase or decrease from month to month gives a good indication of whether the economy is contracting or expanding, and how fast. Very strong or very weak retail sales can put upward or downward pressure on prices. As retail sales surge, upward pressure on prices may eventually take hold, especially if the numbers continue to rise month after month. The opposite is true when sales plummet for a prolonged period. Prices are slashed as consumers spend less. 

Estimates of monthly retail sales data are collected and compiled as the Monthly Trade Report of the U.S. Census Bureau. This data measures total retail spending across the nation. The monthly rate of change is expressed as a positive or negative percentage. The data covers sales for durable and non-durable goods at the retail level.

The Census Bureau releases retail sales data for both month-over-month and year-over-year percentage changes. Month-over-month data is the most important of the two as it can alert watchers to an unexpected trend in the making. Markets are also more likely to react to deviations from expectations in these numbers.

How Are Core Retail Sales Different From Retail Sales?

The monthly retail sales number is a broad measure of consumer spending, while the core retail sales number strips out the factors that can make the monthly number more volatile - namely autos, gas, building materials, and food. 

How Are Core Retail Sales Calculated?

They are calculated by the Census Bureau, under the U.S. Department of Commerce. Core retail sales are a segment of the broader monthly retail sales number. Both retail sales and core retail sales are released in the middle of the month in reference to the previous month's data. 

Why Are Core Retail Sales Important?

Core retail sales are an important measure of consumer spending, complementing the broader monthly retail sales number. Overall monthly retail sales show the big picture of consumer spending, but the core number strips out food, energy, and other fluctuating figures.

The Bottom Line

Core retail sales looks at consumer spending, minus automobiles, gasoline, building materials, and food services, because they are more volatile and not a true indicator of consistent consumer spending patterns. Core retails sales serves as an indicator of the economy, where an increase in core retail sales signals a healthy, expanding economy, while a decrease in core retail sales signals otherwise.

Article Sources
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  1. U.S. Census Bureau. "About the Survey."

  2. U.S. Census Bureau. "Monthly Retail Trade Survey Methodology."

  3. Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA). "Consumer Spending."

  4. Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA). "U.S. Economy at a Glance."

  5. U.S. Census Bureau. "Advance Monthly Sales for Retail and Food Services," Page 5.

  6. U.S Census Bureau. "Monthly Retail Trade."