Winter Holiday FAQs

A blue door with a holiday wreath hanging

What is NRF’s prediction for holiday sales growth this year?

NRF expects holiday retail sales in November and December — excluding automobile dealers, gasoline stations and restaurants — to increase between 3.8 percent and 4.2 percent over 2018. Total spending is expected to reach between $727.9 billion and $730.7 billion. Consumers say they will spend an average of $1,047.83 this holiday season, up 4 percent from the $1,007.24 they said they would spend last year.

How much have holiday sales grown in the last few years?

Holiday sales during 2018 grew 2.1 percent over the year before, an unusually small increase amid a government shutdown, stock market volatility, tariffs and other issues. That was less than half the 5.2 percent growth seen during the 2017 holiday season. During a booming economy, holiday sales can increase significantly, as they did in 2004 when they grew 6.8 percent. They can also decrease during an economic downturn as they did in 2008, when holiday sales dropped 4.7 percent from the previous year. This year’s forecast would top the 3.7 percent average over the past five years.

What percentage of annual sales do the holidays represent?

Overall, holiday sales represent about 20 percent of annual retail sales each year, but the figure can be higher for some retailers. Hobby, toy and game stores report the highest share at about 30 percent. In addition, holiday sales can be more profitable because the increased volume of purchases comes without significantly increasing retailers’ fixed costs of doing business.

Will NRF change its holiday forecast throughout the course of the holiday season?

While NRF reserves the right to change its holiday forecast at any time, NRF rarely does so. The last time NRF revised its holiday forecast was in 2011.

Why is NRF’s forecast different than some other holiday forecasts?

Some holiday forecasts from other organizations include different time periods, such as November through January rather than just November and December, while others include additional categories of spending, such as restaurants, that NRF excludes. Others are based on surveys of what consumers say they will spend rather than the formal economic model used by NRF. (NRF does both a forecast and a survey; see next question.)

How does NRF’s holiday forecast differ from its holiday surveys?

NRF’s holiday forecast is based on a sophisticated economic model using both government and academic data on indicators such as employment, wages, consumer confidence, disposable income, consumer credit and previous retail sales. Separately, Prosper Insights & Analytics conducts surveys for NRF based on what consumers say they plan to do for the holiday season, including how much they plan to spend.

How many extra jobs does the retail industry create during the holiday season?

NRF estimates retailers will hire between 530,000 and 590,000 temporary workers during the 2019 holiday season. Retailers hired 554,000 temporary workers during the 2018 holiday season.

Will consumers see higher prices this year because of tariffs?

The impact of tariffs on holiday spending — either directly or through consumer confidence — remains to be seen. Some holiday merchandise including apparel, footwear and televisions are subject to new tariffs that took effect on September 1, and other products will have tariffs applied on December 15. Retailers are using a myriad of mitigation tactics to try to limit the impact on consumers, and the impact will ultimately vary by company and product. Small businesses in particular have already been forced to raise prices. Nonetheless, 79 percent of consumers surveyed for NRF in September were concerned that tariffs will cause prices to rise, potentially affecting their approach to shopping.

What does NRF classify as the winter holidays?

NRF tallies retail sales — excluding automobile dealers, gasoline stations and restaurants — from November 1 through December 31 to determine holiday sales. Holidays during that period include Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa. In 2019 there are 26 days from Black Friday (the traditional kickoff of holiday shopping) through Christmas Eve, including four weekends. Christmas falls on a Wednesday this year, meaning the weekend before Christmas will likely be one of the busiest of the year.

As noted above, there are 26 days between Thanksgiving and Christmas this year. That’s six days fewer than last year and the smallest number of days possible between the two holidays. But NRF believes that number doesn’t make as much difference as it used to because consumers have started their shopping earlier for years now and retailers have responded by offering deals and promotions sooner. NRF research shows 39 percent of consumers surveyed said they would begin this year’s holiday shopping in October or earlier. Another 43 percent planned to start in November while 15 percent were waiting for the first two weeks of December and 3 percent for the last two weeks. NRF historical data going back to 2002 shows that holiday sales have increased every year except 2008 – during the Great Recession – and that there has been no decrease in sales during years with a shorter Thanksgiving-Christmas period.

How does NRF define retail sales?

Retail sales as defined by NRF include both store-based and online purchases in a broad range of retail categories including discount stores, department stores, grocers and specialty stores but exclude purchases at automotive dealers, gasoline stations and restaurants.

Why do retailers put holiday merchandise on the shelves so early?

Each year about 40 percent of consumers begin their holiday shopping before Halloween. While most retailers do not begin holiday advertising until at least October, they recognize that many people like shopping early to spread out their spending. As a result, many retailers begin putting holiday merchandise on the shelves in September, especially decorations and greeting cards, which many people buy months in advance.

Are deals and store openings cutting into Black Friday’s sales momentum?

There is no question that heavy discounting early in the holiday sales season — both online and in stores — along with retailers opening their doors on Thanksgiving Day have cut into Black Friday sales. However, Black Friday weekend remains the unofficial kickoff to the holidays and is an important tradition for millions of shoppers across the country. There is no indication that this will change in the foreseeable future.

What role do Cyber Monday and Black Friday play in the holiday season?

Black Friday and Cyber Monday are part of the five-day shopping event that begins on Thanksgiving Day and continues through the following Monday. Together these five days represent some of the busiest shopping days of the year as consumers browse and buy online, in stores and, increasingly, on smartphones and other mobile devices. This year, a record 189.6 million people shopped during the period, up 14 percent from 165.8 million in 2018. Shoppers said they spent an average $361.90, up 16 percent from last year's $313.29.

What is Black November? How are retailers participating in it?

Black November is a term coined by a variety of retailers offering Black Friday deals as early as November 1 in response to consumers’ desire to get a head start on holiday shopping. Participating retailers offer special deals on key holiday gifts such as toys, consumer electronics, apparel and more. These deals can be found both online and in stores.

Is NRF affiliated with Small Business Saturday?

NRF is not officially affiliated with Small Business Saturday but supports any initiative to recognize the millions of small retail business establishments and their contributions to the economy and their communities. An estimated 90 percent of all U.S. retail companies employ 100 people or fewer.

What’s the difference between shopping and purchasing?

NRF, defines shopping as browsing items with the intent to purchase, whether online or in stores. Purchasing is the act of actually buying a product.

Why have retailers changed their return policies?

Some retailers make return policies more lenient during the holiday season, understanding that there can be a lag time between when a gift is purchased and received. However, many retailers have also begun to change their return policies to account for an increase in return fraud.