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Americans keep spending; holiday sales grow 3.4%

Americans keep spending, driving the economy at a time when unemployment is at a half-century low point despite headwinds from the trade war.

Holiday sales rose 3.4% this year over 2018, according to a survey by Mastercard SpendingPulse. Online sales grew much more sharply — 18.8% compared with last year — marking the continuing change in how people shop.

The increase this year, both overall and online, is smaller than it was in 2018, but the findings will be welcomed by retailers, which depend on year-end splurges to drive their annual sales.

Consumers are responsible for the largest chunk, by far, of U.S. economic activity, and their willingness to keep shopping has offset declining business investment in the face of the trade war and an uncertain outlook. The economy grew at a 2.1% annual rate in the third quarter of 2019 and has been expanding for 11 years — one of the longest periods of continuous growth ever. Employers added 266,000 jobs in November and unemployment remained at 3.5%, the 21st consecutive month with an unemployment rate of 4% or lower.

Helped by the Federal Reserve’s decision to ease up on interest-rate increases, stocks are on pace for one of their best years in decades. The S&P 500 index was up nearly 29% in 2019 so far.

The SpendingPulse survey tracked sales from Nov. 1 through Dec. 24 that were made using Mastercard’s network of payments systems, and included estimates of purchases made with cash and other kinds of payments. Automobile sales were excluded.

Apparel sales gained 1% over last year and 17% online. Spending on jewelry went up 1.8% overall and 8.8% online. Sales of electronics and appliances rose 4.6%, and home furniture and furnishings grew 1.3%.

The move to more online shopping has come at the expense of brick-and-mortar stores. The retail industry has announced more than 9,000 store closings in 2019. The SpendingPulse survey found a 1.8% decline in sales at department stores. Another sign of the troubles facing department stores: Their online sales grew only 6.9%.

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