May Retail, Food Sales Up a Record 17.7%; Ecommerce Jumps 30%

Retail and food sales jumped a record 17.7% in May compared to April, according to figures from the U.S. Census Bureau, a hopeful sign of a recovery from the ongoing effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, after tanking an adjusted 16.4% in the March-to-April period.

Ecommerce, described as non-store retail by the bureau, posted strong gains, increasing 30% in May from the previous month, as it’s continued to be the primary channel with most stores remaining closed.

Broken out alone, retail sales increased 16.8% in May, but were still 1.4% below the year-ago figures.

Furniture and home furnishings sales were up 89.7% in May vs. April, while electronics and appliance sales gained 50.5%. The largest jump was in clothing and accessories, which zoomed up 188% in a bounce off the bottom. Sporting goods, hobby, musical instruments and book sales increased 88.2%.

Despite the rebound, total spending in food and retail was down 6.1% from May 2019. Meanwhile, up to 25,000 stores could close as a result of the COVID-19 effect, Coresight Research said, with between 55% and 60% of them located in malls, according to Sourcing Journal.

Martin Whitmore, a managing partner with Cambridge Retail Advisors, said pent-up demand was a primary reason for the May spike, combined with significant discounting to clear out backlogged inventory.

“It (pent-up demand) may not be a true barometer of the retail climate,” Whitmore said. “We believe that shoppers are going to be more demanding as they adjust to in-store shopping.”

As for the large growth in apparel sales, Whitmore said it was largely a function of stores reacting to try and clear out-of-season inventory and didn’t represent “real profitable sales.”

He said the “slow resurgence of in-store sales” will erode “some but not all” of the staggering ecommerce gains that have been seen since shutdowns began in March. “We do believe curbside pickup and BOPIS are here to stay and will continue to grow,” he said.

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