Consumers with historically low levels of debt could provide stores with “not great, not awful” retail sales growth of between 4 and 5.5 percent in 2013, similar to the 4.5 percent rate registered in 2012.

This story first appeared in the January 10, 2013 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

That was the estimate of Craig Vosburg, group executive of U.S. market development at MasterCard Worldwide, during a presentation with Cheryl Guerin, the company’s senior vice president and group head of U.S. marketing, on “Connecting Consumers and Retailers to Drive Sales Growth.”

Citing MasterCard data across all payment forms, Vosburg said U.S. sales growth last year came in at 4.5 percent, with increases in luxury retail and specialty apparel retailing at the same level. E-commerce grew at a 14.8 percent rate.

Holiday, defined as the 56 days prior to Christmas, saw increases dissipate as the nation weathered what Vosburg termed “the one-two punch we saw in November with Hurricane Sandy and in December with the increasing drag of the fiscal cliff debate.”

For holiday, U.S. retail sales growth slowed to 3.6 percent, while luxury retailing fell to 1.4 percent and specialty apparel sales just missed the break-even point with a 0.1 percent sales decline. Even the hot e-commerce channel decelerated to a growth rate of 10.6 percent, according to MasterCard data. The e-commerce channel’s 6.9 percent growth rate in November broke a streak of 20 consecutive months with year-over-year growth of at least 14 percent.

Friction among legislators might linger into 2013, but, as with budget battles prior to the “intensely personal” fiscal cliff confrontation, would be more likely to affect consumer confidence than purchasing, Vosburg noted.

He characterized the average consumer as being “in pretty good shape. Personal debt levels are as low as they’ve been in a decade, so there is spending power.” Still, as in 2012, growth will be “a challenge.”

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