Economy Watch: Holiday Retail Sales Up Modestly; Job Openings/Quits Status Quo; Unemployment Claims Rise

Retail sales during the holidays were modest, up by 2.5 percent compared to last year. The number of U.S. job openings in November was more or less unchanged from October. And unemployment claims for the week ending Jan. 5 increased.

By Dees Stribling, Contributing Editor

Early indications were that retail sales during the holidays were modest, and now more data is coming in to reinforce the point. Chicago-based ShopperTrak reported this week that it estimates that Americans spent $248.8 billion at retailers in November and December, 2.5 percent more than during 2011. Not a bad gain, but not a robust one either.

The company also estimated that foot traffic was up 2.5 percent year-over-year. “Our data indicates that more people visited more stores this holiday season than the previous year,” ShopperTrak founder Bill Martin said in a statement. “Retailers who understood their foot traffic were able to staff, stock and market to their customers, ultimately converting more of the browsers into buyers.”

One highly specialized retail sector didn’t do well at all in December: videogame software. Sales of that kind of entertainment product were down 26 percent year-over-year, according NPD Group last week. Competition from mobile devices and digital downloads cut into retail software sales. Hardware sales were down, too, even though Wii introduced a new console.

Job Openings, Quits Unchanged

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in its Job Openings and Labor Turnover Summary (JOLTS), which was released on Thursday, that the number of U.S. job openings in November was 3.7 million, more-or-less unchanged from October. The number of openings was essentially static in all industries except retail, where the number decreased.

Some industries are in more need of new employees than others, which can be a sign of relative good health for those industries. Job openings increased year-over-year for retail and for health care and social assistance, and even grew a bit in government, though state and local government job openings were almost static, noted the BLS.

Another measure of the labor market, the number of quits–people leaving jobs voluntarily, some of whom do so with the prospect of another job waiting for them–was little changed in November compared with October, and little changed over the 12 months ending in November for private employers, but increased in state and local government. Quits also increased over the year in transportation, warehousing, and utilities, according to the BLS.

Unemployment Claims Edge Up

According to the U.S. Department of Labor on Thursday, the number of initial unemployment claims for the week ending January 5 was 371,000, an increase of 4,000 from the previous week’s revised figure of 367,000. The four-week moving average was 365,750, an increase of 6,750 from the previous week’s average.

Wall Street had another up day on Thursday, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average gaining 80.71 points, or 0.6 percent. The S&P 500 advanced 0.76 percent and the Nasdaq was up 0.51 percent.

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