An aggregated measure of the sales of retail goods over a stated time period, typically based on a data sampling that is extrapolated to model an entire country.
In the U.S., the retail sales report is a monthly economic indicator compiled and released by the Census Bureau and the Department of Commerce. The report covers the previous month, and is released about two weeks after the month-end. Year-over-year comparisons are the most-reported metric because they account for the seasonality of consumer-based retail.
Retail sales measure the total receipts at stores that sell merchandise and related services to final consumers. Sales are by retail and food services stores. Essentially, retail sales cover the durables and nondurables portions of consumer spending. Consumer spending typically accounts for about two-thirds of GDP and is therefore a key element in economic growth.
The retail sales report captures in-store sales as well as catalog and other out-of-store sales. The report also breaks down sales figures into groups such as food and beverages, clothing, and autos. The results are often presented two ways: with and without auto sales being counted, because their high sticker price can add extra volatility to the data.
Retail sales figures are vital to stock investors as a whole, and especially to those who invest in retail companies directly. They are also are a big component of total gross domestic product (GDP) in the United States, so any extended drop-offs in retail spending can trigger a recession by lowering tax receipts and forcing companies to reduce head counts.
As far as broad economic indicators go, the retail sales report is one of the most timely, providing data that is only a few weeks old. Individual retail companies often give their own sales figures around the same time per month, and their stocks can be very volatile around this time as investors process the data.