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A Look at Recent Retail Sales Trends

By AICC Staff

March 12, 2020

width=400An expanding economy is what keeps America growing, and that growth is best measured by the increase of the nation’s gross domestic product (GDP). In January, the U.S. economy completed its 127th consecutive month of growth since the deep recession, from which recovery began in July 2009 and now extends its record as the longest economic expansion. Corrugated boxes made by independent corrugated converters contribute to that growth by protecting products from damage during shipment and storage and by providing point-of-sale promotion, to name just two vital jobs that corrugated boxes perform for U.S. consumers and those who produce the products consumers use every day. Since some 70% of U.S. economic growth and almost all goods used by consumers are supplied from retail outlets, a look at important trends in the retail sector should be helpful to independent corrugated producers.

U.S. retail and food service sales amounted to slightly more than $6 trillion in 2018. About half of that total was spent in four sectors of special importance to the U.S. corrugated industry: grocery store sales; sales in the general stores category, which include big-box stores and department stores; restaurant, eatery, and tavern sales; and nonstore retail sales, a category dominated by e-commerce spending.

Total U.S. retail and food service sales grew by 3.4% through the first 11 months of 2019, as shown in the top chart at right, following 4.6% and 4.8% increases in 2017 and 2018, respectively. This favorable overall growth rate has provided support for corrugated demand since before 2017. However, the performance of each of the previously mentioned four sectors has differed in ways that are important to understand.

Through November 2019, retail sales at grocery stores and at food service establishments each accounted for similar shares of total retail and food service sales (12.5% for grocery stores and 12.4% for restaurant sales). Since 2017, consumers’ preferences for getting their nourishment has been growing more rapidly at eateries than from grocery store purchases for off-premises consumption. Even though grocery stores and food manufacturers have been adding specialty foods and meal-ready options to increase sales, grocery store purchases have been growing consistently more slowly than spending at food service establishments as well as more slowly than overall retail sales, rising by only 2.9% through the first 11 months of 2019 and by 4.2% and 4.0% in 2017 and 2018, respectively.

Over the same period, spending at restaurants and other eateries has grown by 4.3% in 2019 and by 5.9% and 6.3% in 2017 and 2018, respectively—all faster rates than overall retail sales growth. The bottom chart on page 4 depicts the consistently greater year-over-year growth rates for restaurants compared to grocery store sales.

Comparing trends for sales in general and department stores with nonstore retailers’ sales shows just how rapidly consumers are altering their preferences away from in-store shopping to online shopping.

width=400In 2019, shoppers spent more at nonstore retailers than they did at general stores; 12.5% of retail and food service sales were made by nonstore retailers, while spending at general stores amounted to 11.5% of total spending.

Spending at general stores and department stores greatly lagged behind overall retail sales, having advanced by only 1.3% in 2019 and by 1.5% and 3.1% in 2017 and 2018, respectively. On the other hand, sales by nonstore retailers increased by 12.5% last year and by 12.5% and 9.4% in 2017 and 2018, respectively. As this rapid growth in e-commerce continues at double-digit rates, it will become the predominant retail sales channel.

The chart at left depicts this widely disparate growth as year-over-year rates.

Retail sales data are released around the middle of each month by the U.S. Census Bureau. Preliminary data can be accessed at This data is updated over the following two months, as additional inputs are gathered by the Census Bureau.

width=150Dick Storat is president of Richard Storat & Associates. He can be reached at 610-282-6033 or

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