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People walk through a shopping mall in New York, on Jan. 12.Spencer Platt/Getty Images

U.S. retail sales dropped by the most in 10 months in December, likely the result of Americans starting their holiday shopping in October to avoid empty shelves at stores.

Economists cautioned against reading the unexpected plunge in retail sales last month reported by the Commerce Department on Friday as a sign of weakness. Consumer spending remains underpinned by huge savings, rising wages as companies scramble for scarce workers as well as soaring household wealth.

Still, the report and news of an unexpected decline in production at factories in December suggested the economy lost momentum at the end of 2021. That trend likely persisted into January amid spiralling COVID-19 infections, driven by the Omicron variant, which have disrupted businesses and schooling.

“It is clear that most shoppers heeded the advice to get holiday shopping done early and that, combined with a massive surge in goods spending earlier in the year, conspired to pull sales sharply lower to end the year,” said Tim Quinlan, a senior economist at Wells Fargo in Charlotte, North Carolina.

“We do not view today’s drop in retail sales as a sign that consumer spending is coming unglued.”

Retail sales fell 1.9 per cent last month, the largest decline since February 2021, after rising 0.2 per cent in November. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast retail sales unchanged. Estimates ranged from as low as a drop of 2.0 per cent to as high as a 0.8 per cent increase.

Retail sales, which are mostly goods, increased 16.9 per cent year-on-year in December. Unadjusted sales rose 10.0 per cent last month after gaining 2.5 per cent in November.

Bottlenecks in the supply chains caused by the pandemic have led to shortages of goods, including motor vehicles. The pulling forward of sales also likely impacted the so-called seasonal factor, the model that the government uses to strip out seasonal fluctuations from the data.

The online sales category was hardest hit by the drag from the seasonal factor, plunging 8.7 per cent. Receipts at auto dealerships slipped 0.4 per cent after rising 0.2 per cent in November. Automobiles remain scarce because of a global semiconductor shortage.

Motor vehicles could remain in short supply for while. A separate report from the Federal Reserve on Friday showed a 1.3 per cent drop in production at motor vehicle plants helped to pull down manufacturing output 0.3 per cent in December.

Production at factories increased 0.6 per cent in November. Economists had expected output to rise 0.5 per cent.

Economists still expected the Fed to start raising interest rates in March, against the backdrop of high inflation.

“The level of nominal and real goods spending remains elevated, and we do not think today’s reading will have a significant impact on the Fed’s decision to liftoff rates, likely in March, which will depend more heavily on inflation than activity data,” said Andrew Hollenhorst, chief economist at Citigroup in New York.

“The seasonal adjustment factor turns highly positive in January suggesting that online sales and overall retail sales will bounce back strongly.”

Stocks on Wall Street were lower. The dollar rose against a basket of currencies. U.S. Treasury prices fell.

Sales at electronics and appliance stores dropped 2.9 per cent. Receipts at service stations fell 0.7 per cent as gasoline prices retreated from higher levels seen in the prior months. Sales at food and beverage stores fell 0.5 per cent. Sales at clothing stores declined 3.1 per cent. There were also declines is sales at sporting goods, hobby, musical instrument and book stores.

Furniture store sales tumbled 5.5 per cent, while receipts at electronics and appliance stores plunged 2.9 per cent. But sales at building material and garden equipment suppliers rose 0.9 per cent.

Receipts at restaurants and bars decreased 0.8 per cent. Restaurants and bars are the only services category in the retail sales report. These sales were up 41.3 per cent from last December.

Excluding automobiles, gasoline, building materials and food services, retail sales plunged 3.1 per cent. Data for November was revised lower to show these so-called core retail sales falling 0.5 per cent instead of dipping 0.1 per cent as previously reported.

Core retail sales correspond most closely with the consumer spending component of gross domestic product. Though economists lowered their fourth-quarter consumer spending forecasts after the data, GDP growth estimates remained bullish, thanks to rising inventory accumulation.

A third report from the Commerce Department showed business inventories increased a strong 1.3 per cent in November.

“On net, we still see real GDP growth in the fourth quarter tracking close to our 7.0 per cent rate forecast,” said Daniel Silver, an economist at JPMorgan in New York.

The economy grew at a 2.3 per cent pace in the third quarter. Growth last year is expected to have been the strongest since 1984.

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