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With the COVID-19 pandemic limiting movement and disrupting economic activity, retail sales dropped 8.7% in March, the largest month-to-month decrease since the Census Bureau started tracking the data.

Overall retail sales, including food services such as restaurants, fell from $529.3 billion in February to $483.1 billion in March.

Retail sales by month by sector

The largest month-to-month drop previously in the Census Bureau’s Advance Retail Sales data was a 3.9% drop between October 2008 and November 2008. The data goes back to 1992.

The economic impact of the pandemic and the travel restrictions associated with it varied by the type of retail business. Sales for motor vehicles and parts dropped by 25.6% from $106.6 billion in February to $79.3 billion in March. Clothing sales plummeted 50.5% from $22.4 billion to $11.1 billion. Meanwhile, sales at grocery stores increased 27% from $58.4 billion to $74.2 billion.

Category March 2020 sales ($B) February 2020 Sales ($B) March 2019 Sales ($B) Change between 2/2020 and 3/2020 Change between 3/2019 and 3/2020
All retail and food services 483.1 529.3 514.8 -8.7% -6.2%
All retail and food services except for automobile-related 403.8 422.7 410.9 -4.5% -1.7%
All retail and food services except for gas 447.7 486.6 471.7 -8.0% -5.1%
All retail and food services except for automobile-related and gas 368.4 380.1 367.9 -3.1% 0.2%
All retail 434.5 463.2 451.8 -6.2% -3.8%
Motor vehicle and parts dealers 79.3 106.6 103.9 -25.6% -23.7%
Auto and other motor vehicles 71.9 98.7 95.8 -27.1% -24.9%
Furniture and home furnishings stores 7.3 10.0 9.7 -26.8% -24.6%
Electronics and appliance stores 6.9 8.1 8.2 -15.1% -15.9%
Building material, garden equipment and supplies dealers 33.8 33.4 31.4 1.3% 7.6%
Food and beverage stores 82.1 65.4 64.1 25.6% 28.0%
Grocery stores 74.2 58.4 57.3 26.9% 29.3%
Health and personal care stores 30.8 29.5 29.5 4.3% 4.3%
Gas stations 35.3 42.6 43.1 -17.2% -18.0%
Clothing stores 11.1 22.4 22.5 -50.5% -50.7%
Sporting goods, hobby, musical instrument, and book stores 5.0 6.5 6.4 -23.3% -22.7%
General merchandise stores 63.8 59.9 59.3 6.4% 7.5%
Department stores 8.8 10.9 11.5 -19.7% -23.9%
Miscellaneous store retailers 10.3 12.0 10.8 -14.3% -4.9%
Nonstore retailers 68.8 66.7 62.7 3.1% 9.7%
Food services and drinking places 48.6 66.1 63.0 -26.5% -23.0%

Nonstore retailers, meaning an array of businesses that don’t have (or aren’t primarily dependent on) brick and mortar locations, had a 3.1% growth in sales from February to March.

It’s still unclear what effect federal and local government actions will have on these declines. At the federal level, the $2 trillion coronavirus stimulus bill had provisions aimed at encouraging consumer spending, increasing unemployment benefits and helping small businesses. Americans will begin receiving coronavirus stimulus checks mid-April, it will be interesting to see what impact those funds will have on this downward trend in spending.

Monthly Retail Trade

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