A tale of Maine retail: December sales have dipped in recent years

Nationwide, retail sales are projected to increase again after a 3.1 percent increase in November and December of 2013, but Maine sales in retail categories likely on shoppers’ lists have fallen in recent years.

It’s hard to isolate what would be deemed holiday shopping, but state sales tax data does give us a look at the categories of stores that are likely the target of gift-seekers.

The chart below tracks state taxable sales from stores in the categories of general merchandise and other retail (more on what’s included in these later), with full dollar value tracked in the top chart and year-over-year change reflected in the bottom chart.

(Use the dropdown in the middle of the chart to view sales for Bangor, Portland and Lewiston.)

As for the categories, the general merchandise group includes most product lines carried in large department stores, like clothing, furniture, appliances, etc. Other retail includes drug stores, jewelry stores, sporting goods, book stores, gift shops and the hopefully non-holiday-related category of morticians.

Retail sales in those categories for November and December make up an outsized share of sales for the year, at about 21 percent. That number was about 19 percent at the national level last year.

Bangor’s retail sales dropped at a faster rate in December but grew sharply for November in 2012; Lewiston showed a similar pattern; and Portland, which makes up a much larger share of retail sales in that category, trended more in line with statewide figures, with sales falling off in December of 2012 and 2013.

Now, the reasons for the decline in Maine are hard to pin down, but the clearest impact came through the recession started in late 2007. That put a serious dent in sales for December of that year and showed up in November 2008 as well, with a 7.4 percent drop after an increase of the same amount one year earlier.

December for the past two years has seen consecutive drops of about 3.8 percent in Maine, while November sales have risen. Counting sales from both months together, 2012 sales in the general and other retail store categories fell 2.1 percent and then 1.1 percent more in 2013.

That followed two years of growth in 2010 and 2011, when sales in those categories rose 2.6 percent and 2.8 percent, respectively, compared with the previous year.

The Retail Association of Maine has also raised concern in recent years that consumers buying through national online retailers have put a dent in total taxable sales, mostly because those taxes are often not collected.

Curtis Picard, the organization’s executive director, said he’s still hoping that some action will be taken at the federal level to ensure states receive sales taxes from retailers completing sales in a state where they have few or no physical locations.

Darren Fishell

About Darren Fishell

Darren is a Portland-based reporter for the Bangor Daily News writing about the Maine economy and business. He's interested in putting economic data in context and finding the stories behind the numbers.