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NRF: May retail sales improve dramatically over April but still lag from 2019

Retail sales rose dramatically in May as retailers and other businesses closed by the coronavirus pandemic began to reopen, but remained well below spending levels seen during the same period a year ago, according to the National Retail Federation (NRF).

“Today’s sales report is very encouraging news at a time when we need to focus on what will happen as retail doors open once again,” NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay said during a live interview on CNBC’s Squawk Box program. “For a sick economy, there is no better medicine than retailers responding to consumers who are ready to safely return to stores. These sales numbers do not reflect the same strength we had going into the pandemic, but they certainly reflect the trajectory we need coming out of it. The most important thing now is to keep these retail stores open for business and not penalize them by closing their doors in the event of a coronavirus surge. As those stores that remained open – our economic first responders – have shown, retailers have developed solutions that protect the safety of their customers and associates, and they are sharing those lessons to the benefit of store owners large and small in communities across the country.”

“The economy kicked off in May as retailers and other businesses reopened and both stimulus money and supplemental unemployment checks fueled spending driven by pent-up demand from two months of shutdowns,” added Jack Kleinhenz, chief economist, NRF. “But full recovery is still a long way off. Comparisons against April have to be taken in context because April was a full month when almost everything that wasn’t deemed ‘essential’ was shut down. Spending has improved considerably but it’s still far below where it was a year ago, and while the freefall in consumer confidence is over, unemployment remains high and confidence is still at recession levels.”

“Going forward, wallets are primed, increased foot traffic shows that consumers are returning to stores, and retailers are ready to meet their demand, but we are likely to remain on a roller coaster for a while,” Kleinhenz said. “What we need to look at is the trajectory of employment and the direction of the virus. There’s hope for a turnaround in the economy in the third quarter but if the virus has a reawakening, we’re going to see some serious situations for consumers.”

The U.S. Census Bureau said overall retail sales during May were up 17.7 percent seasonally adjusted from April but down 6.1 percent year-over-year. That follows a record-setting 14.7 percent month-over-month drop in April. Kleinhenz cautioned the reliability of May’s numbers could be questionable because stores in many areas remained closed and retailers were not in their offices to respond to the Census Bureau’s monthly survey of sales data.

NRF’s calculation of retail sales – which excludes automobile dealers, gasoline stations, and restaurants to focus on core retail – showed May was up 11 percent seasonally adjusted from April and up 1.7 percent unadjusted year-over-year. NRF’s monthly increase was lower than the Census Bureau’s because the categories NRF excludes were among those most affected by the shutdowns.

Specifics from key retail sectors during May include:

  • Clothing and clothing accessory stores were up 188 percent month-over-month seasonally adjusted but down 63.3 percent unadjusted year-over-year.
  • Furniture and home furnishings stores were up 89.7 percent month-over-month seasonally adjusted but down 23.2 percent unadjusted year-over-year.
  • Sporting goods stores were up 88.2 percent month-over-month seasonally adjusted and up 6 percent unadjusted year-over-year.
  • Electronics and appliance stores were up 50.5 percent month-over-month seasonally adjusted but down 30.9 percent unadjusted year-over-year.
  • Building materials and garden supply stores were up 10.9 percent month-over-month seasonally adjusted and up 10.8 percent unadjusted year-over-year.
  • Online and other non-store sales were up 9 percent month-over-month seasonally adjusted and up 25.3 percent unadjusted year-over-year.
  • General merchandise stores were up 6 percent month-over-month seasonally adjusted and up 1.6 percent unadjusted year-over-year.
  • Grocery and beverage stores were up 2 percent month-over-month seasonally adjusted and up 14.3 percent unadjusted year-over-year.
  • Health and personal care stores were up 0.4 percent month-over-month seasonally adjusted but down 12.6 percent unadjusted year-over-year.
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