Retail Sales Telling the Economy’s Story

Economic Blog

Retail sales numbers for April were released today, and the basic story was no surprise. Retail sales fell a record 16.4% in April, after declining 8.4% in March, already the largest decline since the government started keeping records in 1992.

The year-over-year decline of more than -21.6% has already topped the -11.5% seen during depths of the financial crisis, as shown in the accompanying chart. But there are hints that the decline has been heavily influenced by store closures rather than shoppers tightening their belts, and that might bode well for the future as the economy gradually starts to open up.

View enlarged chart.

“One of the reasons for the major decline in retail sales is simply because many businesses are closed,” said LPL Financial Chief Investment Officer Burt White. “As the economy slowly opens back up, retail sales should bounce back, as pent-up demand is there”

For the past two months, the economy experienced an 89% decline in apparel sales and a 59.2% decline in restaurant sales.  These numbers capture the effects of businesses closing.  The one area of the retail sales numbers that has done relatively well? Groceries had a record April as consumers stocked up and continued to show some strength in May.

While it will take time for retail sales to get back to normal, several factors are in play that should help support retail activity as the economy opens up. Pent-up demand is increasingly evident. Fiscal stimulus should help preserve incomes. And consumer balance sheets remain relatively healthy, with credit card debt declining the most in decades in March. While weakness will continue, April data may be the low point for retail sales, with good prospects for some strength in the second half of the year. A return to full strength will ultimately depend on the progress doctors and scientists make in limiting the dangers from COVID-19, but even the gradual opening up of the economy may show retail sales numbers starting to stabilize as early as next month.


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