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Economy in Brief

U.S. Retail Sales Record Plunge, Weighed Down by Coronavirus Shutdowns
by Tom Moeller  April 15, 2020

• Consumers stay home and do without most new products.

• Apparel & furniture sales are notably hard hit.

Total retail sales including food service establishments plunged 8.7% (-6.2% y/y) during March after weakening 0.4% in February, revised from -0.5%. A 5.5% decline had been expected in the Action Economics Forecast Survey. Retail sales excluding motor vehicles & parts fell 4.5% (-1.7% y/y) following an unrevised 0.4% easing. A 2.1% decline had been anticipated. Motor vehicle & parts dealerships posted a 25.6% sales decline (-23.7% y/y) as unit sales of motor vehicles weakened by one-third m/m and y/y.

Retail sales fell 6.2% last month (-3.8% y/y) after slipping 0.5% in February. Apparel & accessory store sales plummeted 50.5% (-50.7% y/y), down sharply for the third straight month. Sales at furniture & home furnishings stores weakened 26.8% (-24.6% y/y) after easing 0.9%. Sporting goods, hobby, book & music store sales fell by roughly one-quarter both m/m and y/y. Electronics & appliance retailers realized a 15.1% decline in sales (-15.9% y/y) which came after a 0.9% drop. Restaurant and bar sales declined 26.5% (-23.0% y/y) with widespread closures of these establishments. Gasoline & service station sales fell 17.2% (-18.0% y/y) as prices dropped and driving was limited.

Partially offsetting these declines was a 25.6% surge (28.0% y/y) in food & beverage store sales as eating home became a necessity. General merchandise stores realized a 6.4% (7.5% y/y) surge in sales. Sales of nonstore retailers also strengthened 3.1% (9.7% y/y), the largest monthly increase since January of 2019. The gain followed two months of modest increase. Building materials & garden store sales improved 1.3% (7.6% y/y).

In another nondiscretionary sales category, health & personal care product stores improved 4.3% both m/m and y/y, following a 0.4% decline.

The retail sales data can be found in Haver's USECON database. The Action Economics forecast is in the AS1REPNA database.

Mitigating COVID-19 Effects with Conventional Monetary Policy from the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco is available here.

Retail Spending (% chg) Mar Feb Jan Mar Y/Y 2019 2018 2017
Total Retail Sales & Food Services -8.7 -0.4 0.8 -6.2 3.5 4.8 4.6
  Excluding Autos -4.5 -0.4 0.7 -1.7 3.4 5.5 5.0
Retail Sales -6.2 -0.5 0.7 -3.8 3.4 4.6 4.5
 Retail Less Autos -0.4 -0.5 0.7 2.1 3.2 5.3 4.8
  Motor Vehicle & Parts -25.6 -0.5 0.8 -23.7 4.0 2.3 3.4
  Gasoline Service Stations -17.2 -2.9 -0.3 -18.0 0.3 12.6 8.9
  Food & Beverage Stores 25.6 -0.1 -0.2 28.0 3.0 4.0 4.2
Food Service & Drinking Places -26.5 -0.2 0.9 -23.0 4.4 6.3 5.9
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