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By: Alex Carrick on June 23rd, 2020

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May U.S. Retail Sales Back From the Brink

Economic News | Alex Carrick | COVID-19

Lines That Sink, Bob Back up and Soar

There are some eye-catching results to be observed from the Census Bureau’s Advance Monthly Sales for Retail and Food Services, May 2020 report. After shopkeepers posted terrible results in April, there were some astonishing bounce-backs in May.

May U.S. Retail Sales Back from the Brink Graphic

The following seven graphs mainly speak for themselves. There are lines that plummet severely and stay depressed. But there are also lines that sink sharply, then soar again. And in at least one instance, for nonstore retailers, there’s a curve that shoots directly upwards in a manner almost never seen anywhere else before.

U.S. total retail sales in May were +16.8% month to month, leaving them only -1.4% year over year. Much of the thanks for the m/m improvement goes to ‘motor vehicle and parts’ sales, which were +44.1% m/m, but still negative to the tune of -3.9% y/y. Auto sector sales accounted for the largest share of ‘total retail’ in May, at 22.1%.

Auto dealers have been offering once-in-a-decade pricing discounts and financing deals. The last time there were comparable bargains was during the 2008-09 recession. (In those days, two of North America’s Big Three automakers needed to seek bankruptcy protection.)    

Graph 1: Total Retail Sales in U.S. Monthly

Total Retail Sales in U.S. Monthly Chart
The last data points are for May 2020.
Adjusted for seasonality and trading day differences, but not for price changes (i.e., figures are in 'current' dollars).
Data source: Census Bureau / Chart: ConstructConnect.

Graph 2: U.S. Motor Vehicle & Parts Sales Within Total Retail

U.S. Motor Vehicle & Parts Sales Within Total Retail Chart
The last data points are for May 2020.
Data source: U.S. Census Bureau (Department of Commerce) / Chart: ConstructConnect.

Astonishing Success for Nonstore Retailers

The second largest contributor (at 19.3%) to total U.S. retail sales in May was the ‘nonstore’ category. ‘Nonstore’ includes retailers who sell mainly over the Internet or through electronic auctions.

Sales by nonstore retailers were a commendable +9.0% month to month, but an outstanding 30.8% year over year in May (Graph 3).

Graph 4 shows the volume of nonstore retail sales ascending steeply, in a manner that few retailers would ever let themselves dream of achieving, knowing they would almost surely be disappointed. 

Graph 3: U.S. Retail & Food Services Sales Y/Y - May 2020

U.S. Retail & Food Services Sales Y/Y - May 2020 Chart
'Current' dollars means not adjusted for inflation. Underlying numbers are seasonally adjusted & not 'smoothed'.
Data source: U.S. Census Bureau / Chart: ConstructConnect.

Graph 4: U.S. Retail Sales through Electronic Shopping & Mail-Order Houses

U.S. Retail Sales through Electronic Shopping & Mail-Order Houses Chart
Adjusted for seasonal variation, holiday and trading day differences, but not for price changes.
Data source: U.S. Census Bureau / Chart: ConstructConnect.

Glimmers of Light for Restaurants and Bars

Now that reopenings are underway, ‘food services and drinking places’ are doing a little better. Their May sales were much improved month to month, +29.1%, but they remained underwhelming year over year, -39.4%.

Graph 5 showcases a one-of-a-kind stark contrast in sales activity between two sectors—upbeat nonstore retailers compared with continuing-to-be-distressed restaurants and bars.

Graph 6 also highlights a hospitality sector that has been hurt by the pandemic far more than the retail side of the economy.

Graph 5: U.S. Sales by Food Services & Drinking Places vs Non-Store Retailers (i.e., Internet Platforms & E-Auctions)

U.S. Sales by Food Services & Drinking Places vs Non-Store Retailers (i.e., Internet Platforms & E-Auctions) Chart
Latest data points are for May 2020.
Adjusted for seasonal variation, holiday and trading day differences, but not for price changes.
Data source: U.S. Census Bureau / Chart: ConstructConnect.

Graph 6: Year-Over-Year (Y/Y) U.S. Monthly Sales,
Retail vs Food Services & Drinking Places

Year-Over-Year (Y/Y) U.S. Monthly Sales,
Retail vs Food Services & Drinking Places Chart
*"Year over year" is each month versus the same month of the previous year. Latest data points are for May 2020.
Current dollars, with adjustments made for seasonal variation, holiday & trading day differences, but not for price changes.
Data source: U.S. Census Bureau (Department of Commerce) / Chart: ConstructConnect.

Home-Related Retail Sales Hit & Miss

As for retail sales that relate most directly to home ownership, renovation activity and new residential construction, Graph 7 sets out crucial disparities.

With respect to items purchased for use in the home, i.e., ‘furniture and home furnishings’ and ‘electronics and appliances,’ their sales volumes were still deeply negative year over year in May, each down by nearly one-third on a three-month moving average basis.

On a positive note, though, sales of ‘building materials and garden equipment’ were quite sprightly, +8.5% y/y (again, as a three-month moving average.)

It would seem there’s a lot of home remodeling going on and/or many individuals have become resigned to staying put this summer and are choosing productive yardwork to occupy their time.

Graph 7: U.S. Home-related Retail Sales − Three Months Smoothed

U.S. Home-related Retail Sales − Three Months Smoothed Chart
*"Year over year" is each month versus the same month of the previous year.
Based on three-month moving averages of current dollar adjusted data. Latest data points are for May 2020.
Adjustments are for seasonal variation, holiday and trading day differences, but not for price changes.
Data source: U.S. Census Bureau (Department of Commerce) / Chart: ConstructConnect.

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