Americans, who are increasingly optimistic about improving economic conditions, are expected to spend at a more-rapid clip during the upcoming holiday shopping season than they did last year.
But that could change if the partial government shutdown that has forced about 800,000 federal workers off the job continues and causes shoppers to lose confidence in the economy.
The National Retail Federation, the nation’s largest retail trade group, forecast Thursday that sales in November and December will rise 3.9 percent to $602.1 billion. That’s above the 3.5 percent increase a year ago and the 10-year average in holiday-sales growth of 3.3 percent.
But Matthew Shay, the group’s president and CEO, said in an interview with The Associated Press on Wednesday that the forecast was calculated before the government shutdown after Congress failed to pass a spending bill by Monday’s midnight deadline. In addition to the furlough of hundreds of thousands of workers, that resulted in the shuttering of national parks and halting of a range of government services.
Shay said the group’s forecast does not account for the possibility that the shutdown, now in its third day, could go on for a prolonged period of time that he defines as two weeks or more. But it does factor in the optimism Americans feel as jobs have become easier to get and the housing recovery has gained momentum.
“What we are trying to balance here is the underlying fundamentals with the economy, which seem strong, against all that consumer unease and the uncertainty coming from Washington,” Shay said.
Shay acknowledges that predicting how the holiday season will fare is difficult. In fact, the National Retail Federation often has been either too cautious or too optimistic. Last year, for instance, the group’s forecast of 4.1 percent increase was far higher than the 3.5 percent rise retailers actually saw.
But nonetheless, the forecast is an important indicator for retailers that rely on the last two months of the year for 20 percent to 40 percent of their annual sales. The estimates also provide insight for into consumer spending, which accounts for up to 70 percent of economic activity.
A big concern is that a prolonged government shutdown could severely hurt the economy and, necessarily, consumer spending. For each week the government remains shut, the U.S. economy would lose 0.15 percent of annualized growth, estimates David Stockton, a former research director at the Federal Reserve who is now at the Peterson Institute.
And even before the government shutdown, retailers had reasons to be cautiously optimistic. Though the job and housing markets are improving, that hasn’t yet translated into sustained spending increases among most shoppers.