By Lenore Fedow
Online sales are expected to grow as much as 15 percent to $894 billion in 2020, according to the National Retail Federation’s retail forecast.
Washington—In the face of uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus, ongoing trade negotiations and the upcoming U.S. presidential election, the National Retail Federation is still predicting a strong year for retailers.

Retail sales are expected to climb by up to 4 percent in 2020, totaling more than $3.9 trillion, according to the NRF’s recent forecast.

Online sales, which are included in the total, are expected to grow between 12 and 15 percent to between $870.6 billion and $893.9 billion.

“The nation’s record-long economic expansion is continuing, and consumers remain the drivers of that expansion,” said NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay in a press release announcing the forecast.

Shay pointed to gains in household income and wealth, lower interest rates and strong consumer confidence as signs of a strong year ahead.

While outside factors are “wild cards,” the underlying economic fundamentals are strong, he added.

“Their consumptions habits are based on job security and their level of confidence that they've got a job, that those around them have jobs,” Shay said on a call Wednesday morning discussing the results.

NRF Chief Economist Jack Kleinhenz said: “Consumers remain upbeat and have the confidence to spend, and the steady wage growth that has come with the strong job market is fueling their spending. The state of the consumer is very healthy.” 

Retailers specializing in furniture and home products in particular are expected to see a boost, as low interest rates translate to home buying and mortgage refinancing,  Kleinhenz noted.

Though disposable income has moderated, inflation has been low, he added, giving consumers the confidence to spend using their credit cards or savings.

Corporate CEOs, however, likely won’t share that confidence, Kleinhenz said, as trade negotiations loom large.

In December, President Donald Trump reached a “phase one” trade agreement with China, which eased trade tensions but did not lead to a comprehensive agreement. Further progress on the agreement could give the economy a boost and contribute to higher corporate spending and hiring, the NRF said.

However, should negotiations turn sour, a trade war escalation would discourage corporate investments, Kleinhenz said.

The U.S. presidential election in November also has the potential to impact retail sales. In an election year, politics tend to dominate the news cycle, making it more difficult for retailers to get media time, Kleinhenz said on the NRF’s call.

As for the coronavirus, the retail forecast assumes it does not become a global pandemic.

The forecast notes that business confidence and retail sales could feel the impact if factory shutdowns in China continue, especially if the delivery of merchandise for the holiday season is affected.

Looking at the overall economy, the NRF expects to see between 150,000 and 170,000 jobs added every month this year, compared with an average of 175,000 last year.

The unemployment rate, which is currently at 3.6 percent, is expected to stay around 3.5 percent.

Gross domestic product is forecast to grow 1.9 percent, down from preliminary estimates of 2.3 percent in 2019.

Looking back to 2019, preliminary results show retail sales were up 3.7 percent year-over-year to $3.79 trillion, falling just short of the NRF’s forecast of 3.8 percent growth.

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