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How to Interpret Reports of Retail Sales, Business and Industry Trends Analysis

Because several different organizations publish monthly sales reports on America’s retail sector, these reports can be tricky to interpret, depending on exactly which portion of retail you are trying to track.

Period Compared:  At all times, you should be aware of the dates being compared.  For example, a comparison of April 2018 sales over March 2018 (the previous month) will be quite different from a comparison of April 2018 sales over April 2017 (the previous year).

Same-Store Sales/Comparable Store Sales:  You should also be aware of the difference in “Same-Store Sales” and “Total Sales.”  Same-Store Sales are results only for the stores in a retail chain that have been open for at least 12 months.  This is a solid indicator of the consistency of sales through the chain.  (Same-Store Sales may also be referred to as Comparable Store Sales.)

The following is a list of easy-to-use resources for retail sales trends.

A.       U.S. Department of Commerce Reports—Retail Stores, Automobiles, Food Service

To begin with, the U.S. Department of Commerce (DOC) publishes its Monthly Retail Trade Survey, and a corresponding Annual Retail Trade Survey at .  When you see this bureau’s retail trade figures in print, however, bear the following things in mind:

1)    DOC includes all types of retail trade in its numbers, including new and used automobiles, gasoline and food service at restaurants.

2)    Every month, the DOC surveys a few thousand stores and restaurants (out of a total U.S. base of about 3 million) to get its figures.

3)    If you dig deeper into its reports, the DOC breaks down sales by category of store.  Near the top of its reports, you will find “Total” (including autos and restaurants), “Total excluding automobiles and parts” and “GAFO.”  The GAFO figure represents General Merchandise stores only, including department stores, furnishings, electronics and appliances, clothing, books, sporting goods, office supplies and gifts.

4)    Next, be aware that the DOC reports “Adjusted” and “Not Adjusted” sales.  The Adjusted figures have been altered to allow for seasonal variations, such as the dates of major holidays.

5)    The DOC publishes “Advance Monthly Sales” as an estimate for the previous month.  For example, in mid-November, DOC published advance estimates of October retail sales.  A final, more conclusive report is published several weeks later.

B.       U.S. Department of Commerce—Retail Ecommerce Sales Reports

The DOC includes “Non Store Sales” in its monthly and annual reports.  It also issues a very useful, separate report (“Retail Ecommerce Sales”) that breaks out ecommerce sales and compares the market share of ecommerce to traditional sales.  These reports track the growth of ecommerce sales over a period of several quarters and several years so that you can readily see the growth of internet-based retailing.

C.        comScore Ecommerce Sales Reports

comScore Networks, Inc. ( also tracks retail sales online on a continuing basis.  Its figures can be very useful in tracking the growth of ecommerce, and they are published much faster than those of the DOC.

It’s important to note that surveys of ecommerce sales can vary widely, depending on whether they include revenues from travel booked online (a huge category) and automobiles or other peripheral items sold online.  The comScore reports are broken down to show the difference that adding in sales of travel would make.


D.       Major Chain Store Sales and the International Council of Shopping Centers

An industry group that represents mall and shopping center owners, the International Council of Shopping Centers (ICSC,, reports on sales at selected major national chains.  While the reports are extremely useful in tracking general merchandise sales, it should not be confused with total retail sales at all types of stores.

ShopperTrak Weekly and Monthly Retail Reports:  ShopperTrak ( promptly provides very useful retail sales reports.  Its products include the respected National Retail Traffic Index (NRTI) and the National Retail Sales Estimate (NRSE).

National Retail Federation Monthly Reports:  The National Retail Federation (NRF) is a massive trade organization representing firms involved in the retail industry.  Its monthly reports on retail sales, which can be found at, focus mainly on results at major chain stores, many of which are mall-based.

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