Retail sales ticked up 0.2% in December, according to a report from the Census Bureau. Economists were expecting sales to be flat from November.Among those electronic stores suffering was Best Buy, which suffered a drop in overall Holiday-season revenue compared to last year, leading to its stock being hammered on Wall Street this week. Another retailer that struggled was J.C. Penney, who announced plans to close 33 stores nationwide, causing approximately 2,000 employees to lose their jobs in the coming months.
November sales, however, were revised lower. The government said sales grew by 0.4% in November from October, down from the 0.7% it had originally reported last month.
The number was lifted by strong sales in food, clothing and accessories and gasoline -- necessities or gifts on the lower end of the price spectrum. Sales at nonstore retailers, which includes online shopping, increased by 1.4%.
But big-ticket items that are generally considered staples of the holiday season weighed on the number. Sales at electronic and appliance stores fell by 2.5%, and auto dealers saw a 1.9% drop.
And the state being hit hardest by the J.C. Penney closings? Wisconsin, with 5 stores closing here, while no other state has more than 3. Why are Penney's closings hitting so hard in Wisconsin? That was a question that Sara Morrison tried to answer in this nationwide story.
J.C. Penney said the stores were "underperforming." The Chicago Tribune blamed it on the dominance of Penney "archrival" Kohl's, which is headquartered in the state.Indeed, the evidence from Wall Street does indicate that some people have outgrown the concept of going to crowded malls in general, and would rather shop online and in stand-alone stores, as the improved online sales from the Holidays would indicate. But that could be quite a rough structural change for plenty of communities that have relied on the old way of shopping as a commercial anchor, as the image of a Wausau mall with three empty stores sure isn't evidence of a vibrant economy, as well as being an eyesore that drives down property values in the area.
Or perhaps Wisconsinites just like their businesses independent. The Wausau Center mall will be especially hard hit: it's also losing a Gap and a Hollister this month. Janke Book Store co-owner Jane Janke Johnson told the Wisconsin Rapids Tribune that she "gasped" when she heard the news, but "there are still some very strong, viable and unique businesses in downtown Wausau, and I feel those businesses and anchors will continue to draw customers." I have a feeling she's talking about a certain book store.
Or maybe there's something bigger going on. Maybe it's an indication that the average consumer doesn't have the money to buy that much these days, and that a lot of people still have yet to feel the economic growth that we keep hearing about in the Wall Street-Centric media. Take a look at the real wages and earnings information that came out this week, and you can see that the average worker isn't any better off than they were this time last year.
Real average hourly earnings for all employees fell 0.3 percent from November to December, seasonally adjusted, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported today. This decrease stems from a 0.1 percent increase in average hourly earnings being more than offset by a 0.3 percent increase in the Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers (CPI-U).And in Wisconsin, we know that take home pay for public employees has been slashed with Act 10, and that Wisconsin has the lowest average manufacturing wage in the Midwest. Maybe, just maybe, demand matters, and if people aren't getting paid much, they don't spend so much. And you can bet the 300 or so J.C. Penney workers in Wisconsin that are now facing layoffs in 5 cities won't be willing to shell out any time in the near future either.
Real average weekly earnings fell 0.5 percent over the month due to the decrease in real average hourly earnings combined with a 0.3 percent decrease in the average workweek.
Real average hourly earnings rose 0.2 percent, seasonally adjusted, from December 2012 to December 2013. The increase in real average hourly earnings, combined with a 0.3 percent decrease in the average workweek, resulted in no net change in real average weekly earnings over this period.
So these gloomy retail reports prove again that low wages and the resulting inequality in our two-tier society are the biggest economic problem we face. And until Main Street starts to get the same share of growth that Wall Street and Corporate CEOs are getting, the amount of growth we have will be limited. The oligarchs may like that, but it sucks for the vast majority of us in the real world.