The department’s Census Bureau tracks estimates each month. Retail Dive provides the numbers for key segments, and their year-over-year progress, or decline. [ December sales up 6.7% as shoppers ditch department stores. ]
Editor’s Note: Comparisons for individual segments are updated each month to reflect the government’s revisions to its year ago figures. A full methodology for how Retail Dive tracks retail sales figures is included at the bottom of this page.
Every month, the U.S. Department of Commerce, Census Bureau, releases its first calculation of the previous month’s retail sales. At Retail Dive, we report these figures by grouping the key segments that define “retail” in a way that we hope is most meaningful to the industry.
We use unadjusted, advance numbers and year-over-year comparisons, with the government’s most recent revisions to its year-ago estimates. And although we of course include e-commerce, captured in the federal report as “nonstore retailers,” readers will note that the government includes sales from businesses not generally thought of as “e-commerce.”
How key retail sales fared year over year
Total sales+7%Non-store+22%Sporting goods, hobby, bookstores+21%Furniture & home+5%General merchandise-1%Clothing & accessories-14%Electronics & applicances-16%
Data from U.S. Census Bureau, Advanced Monthly Retail Trade Survey
- December 2020
Total monthly sales: $254.03B
Retail sales in all the segments followed by Retail Dive, using numbers released Friday by the U.S. Department of Commerce, rose 6.7% year over year in December.
E-commerce rose 22.3%, a reflection of the ongoing challenge in getting consumers into stores during a pandemic, even with most locations open. The online tally in large part did include BOPIS services that depend on stores, however, according to GlobalData research.
In general, retail eked out a pretty good outcome in the last weeks of its all-important fourth quarter. “From our data it is clear that savings made on things like travel and vacations were funneled into retail as consumers were determined to enjoy themselves and loosened the purse strings over the holiday season,” GlobalData Managing Director Neil Saunders said in emailed comments.
But the true story for the second month of the holiday period is found in which sectors gained and lost. Electronics sales (down 15.7% year over year) and apparel (down 13.9%), categories that are usually beneficiaries of the gift-giving season, faltered. Clothing sales did recover somewhat from November, thanks to “cozy holiday outfits and some gift buying,” but apparel gifting and partywear sales were both down compared to 2019, per GlobalData.
Worse, department stores, which once upon a time ushered in the holidays in communities large and small across the U.S., nosedived 22%.
“Reduced footfall to malls and, in many cases, a lack of a compelling offer meant that many consumers shunned a channel that traditionally does well over the holiday period,” Saunders said. “That’s bad news for a segment of retail that is desperately in need of a boost.”
The segments that gained followed a pattern seen throughout the months of the pandemic: Furniture and home sales rose 5.4% and sports and hobby sales rose 21.3%. The relatively subdued holiday season could give way to a spending boom in coming months if further stimulus as proposed by President-elect Joe Biden is passed and the pandemic gets under control, according to Robert Frick, corporate economist at Navy Federal Credit Union.
“[T]he late-December stimulus and the pending stimulus under the Biden administration will boost both bank accounts and consumers’ spirits,” Frick said in emailed comments.
- November 2020
Total monthly sales: $212.28B
Retail sales rose 10.3% year over year in November for the cohort tracked by Retail Dive, using monthly results from the U.S. Department of Commerce. The pandemic continues to influence not only how much, but also how, when and where consumers spend, creating winners and losers among sectors.
“Overall, this is a comfortable set of results going into the Christmas peak,” GlobalData Managing Director Neil Saunders said in emailed comments.
October appears to have stolen some of November’s usual holiday thunder, the result of a concerted effort by retailers, worried about the logistical nightmare of soaring online sales, to launch the season early.
The National Retail Federation has forecast that holiday sales will rise between 3.6% and 5.2% over 2019 to between $755.3 billion and $766.7 billion, but noted on Wednesday that 42% consumers started earlier this season. The NRF said that retail sales have risen each month since May — a time when the pandemic locked down nonessential retail and decimated sales. In all, retail sales so far in 2020 are up 6.6% year over year, the group said in an emailed press release.
E-commerce did indeed soar again in November, rising 32.4% year over year, the second highest increase after June. “A lot of consumers opened to shop for deals and bargains online rather than venture out to stores over the Black Friday and Cyber week period,” Saunders said.
But Jim Baird, chief investment officer at Plante Moran Financial Advisors, noted that non-store retail (dominated by e-commerce) increased just 0.2% from October, which is “certainly indicative of the degree of weakness in retail activity for the month.”
Sporting goods retailers experienced a hefty 18.4% rise from last year, and home goods sales (up 0.7%) and general merchandise sales (up 1.1%) also enjoyed year-over-year bumps.
Other retailers were not so lucky. Electronics sales tumbled 10.2%, for example. And department stores, which saw sales plummet 19.1%, and apparel retailers, with sales down an even worse 19.9%, were badly broadsided.
“Both segments were ill-served by a lack of footfall and interest, especially as many consumers stayed away from malls over the Black Friday weekend,” Saunders said of the last two segments. “This reduced the opportunities for browsing and impulse purchasing.”
The season is hardly over. On average, consumers by Black Friday weekend had finished about half their holiday shopping, according to the NRF. The pandemic, and its damage to the economy, continues to cast a shadow over holiday spending, with dire consequences for some retailers next year.
“Consumers are still spending, and many retailers are still winning as a result,” Saunders said. “However, it is also clear that polarization is increasing and the holidays are providing little respite for the laggards. If this trend continues, there will inevitably be more retail casualties as we move into 2021.”
- October 2020
Total monthly sales: $191.70B
Retail sales in October, as provided by the U.S. Department of Commerce and tracked by Retail Dive, rose 13.3% from last year, a sign of consumer strength that should bode well for the holiday season.
E-commerce alone was up 31.2% in October. But the federal report was a disappointment against some analyst expectations, and some categories fared especially poorly. Electronics sales fell 3.4%, department store sales fell 9.5% and apparel continued its losing streak of the past several months with a 12.1% decline.
“This is a slightly disappointing outcome given that October is the period when consumers start to buy heavier items of apparel in preparation for the cooler months ahead,” GlobalData Retail Managing Director Neil Saunders said in emailed comments. “In our view it suggests that the clothing sector is still a very long way off any meaningful recovery.”
Some areas that seemed to have benefited from pandemic-related stay-at-home orders over the summer saw more meager gains in October. Home and furniture sales rose 6.6%, for example, representing a month-to-month slowdown, according to GlobalData.
“Every cut of the October numbers disappointed,” Wells Fargo Senior Economist Tim Quinlan said in emailed comments, which tracked progress from September. “Ex-autos, for example was up just 0.2% instead of the 0.6% expectation and control group sales, which offers a good read on personal consumption figures in the GDP report — edged higher by 0.1% versus the 0.5% expectations. For every one of these categories, the September figures were revised lower.”
October’s so-so retail performance is a mixed bag: The pockets of strength suggest some optimism for the holidays, but the weakness shows how important the previous federal stimulus package was in combating lost wages and firming up consumer confidence.
The failure to renew a package so far imperils retail spending next year, if not sooner, Saunders warned.
“Consumers are still spending and there is still an influx of money from other sectors of the economy which is helping retailers,” Saunders said. “The year will end on a solid note, but unless there is another injection of stimulus it will fall well short of being a boom. And if things keep slowing down, the prospects for early 2021 do not look promising.”
- September 2020
Total monthly sales: $177.50B
Retail sales in September as provided by the U.S. Department of Commerce and tracked by Retail Dive, rose 11.7% from last year, a result called “astonishing” by GlobalData Retail Managing Director Neil Saunders.
“September was the month when retail sales seemingly defied gravity,” Saunders said in emailed comments.
But in a year when the COVID-19 pandemic has stifled demand and forced many retailers to close in the spring, September’s rebound isn’t entirely surprising.
Many U.S. consumers are flush with cash after a summer without much travel, entertainment or dining out to empty their pockets, and some still have a few dollars left over from the federal government’s $3 trillion pandemic-related stimulus. And as retailers have reopened after their forced closures earlier this year in an effort to stem the pandemic’s spread, they have signaled to customers that it’s safe to shop by instituting health and safety measures at their locations and making it easier to shop without entering a store.
“Americans on average are spending above year-ago levels, especially online and on their homes,” Robert Frick, corporate economist at Navy Federal Credit Union, said in emailed comments. “We know the first rounds of stimulus left many with hefty savings accounts and allowed them to pay down credit balances, which gives them more spending power now. The question is without another round of stimulus, will healthy retail spending continue, or will it fade in the first quarter as more unemployment benefits disappear and more Americans need to tap their savings and credit lines?”
As Frick notes, e-commerce (up 27.7%) and furniture and home goods (up 8%) had a good month, and sporting goods also buoyed the total with a generous 20.7% increase from last year. Back-to-school spending likely gave retail a boost in the month, several analysts noted.
“Today’s figures have beat expectations and highlighted the retail industry’s dedication to rapid innovation to keep doors open,” Marwan Forzley, CEO of business-to business payments platform Veem, said in emailed comments. “Seasonal shopping further supported September’s retail success with back to school sales. Regardless of whether students are attending classes online, or in person, supplies are still needed.”
But not all sectors fared well. One of the usual mainstays of the back-to-school season, apparel, tumbled 13.1% from last year, as consumers and their children have little need for special clothing for work, school or occasions. Department stores, which by and large also depend heavily on apparel, saw sales fall 7.9% year over year to $8.96 billion. Moreover, sales don’t tell the whole story. There’s evidence that many shoppers, faced with a bleak employment picture, are in bargain-hunting mode. And those efforts to encourage shopping during a pandemic are taking their toll on retailers.
“Many players also face increased costs from servicing lower-margin online sales and from extra measures taken to keep consumers safe during the pandemic,” Saunders said. “This is one of the reasons why there is still some distress in retail, despite good overall growth.”
- August 2020
Total monthly sales: $184.06B
Retail spending sagged somewhat in the middle of the third quarter, as August sales as tracked by Retail Dive rose 5.3% year over year to $184.1 billion, with non-store sales (mostly e-commerce) up 22.6% to $78.3 billion.
That missed expectations, although there was evidence of pockets of consumer strength. Just as U.S. consumers are increasingly splitting into haves and have-nots, retailers are experiencing varying levels of pressure as the pandemic continues to roil supply and demand. Larger retailers, for example, have been able to adapt more readily to those challenges, and are more likely to enjoy financial cushions.
“August numbers might have been higher if not for small businesses struggling with reopening and the return to full operations,” National Retail Federation Chief Economist Jack Kleinhenz said in emailed comments, noting some stability in spending habits derived from a build-up of savings and some government support.
Otherwise, much of a retailer’s chances of winning or losing depended on consumer behavior peculiar to this pandemic era, like extra attention to homes and home-based activity, and little interest in new clothes.
“[A] comparison of how retailers have fared by store type offers a snapshot of the unusual way U.S. households have spent their money in a summer that changed the face of retail,” Wells Fargo Senior Economist Tim Quinlan said in emailed comments. “Not all stores are back to business as usual.”
Apparel sales tanked year over year 23.7% to $18.2 billion and department store sales (heavily dependent on apparel) plummeted 16.5% to $9.6 billion, for example. Meanwhile, furniture and home goods sales rose 1.1% to $10.4 billion, and sporting goods sales rose 10.2% to $8.1 billion. Wells Fargo economists noted that remote learning helped drive up electronics sales, but also that those stores remain below their pre-pandemic peak.
Apparel and gear retailers could get a reprieve, as colder weather hits some parts of the country. While the pandemic continues to restrict many indoor activities, people will likely seek items that help them extend the season.
“From our data, occasion wear and workwear are the most badly affected parts of the category and sales here have not recovered after cratering earlier in the year,” GlobalData Retail Managing Director Neil Saunders said in emailed comments. “There is hope among retailers that as we move into fall, sales of outdoor products like coats and sweaters will pick up as consumers continue to focus on outdoor activities.”
- July 2020
Total monthly sales: $185.57B
Retail sales growth in July was fairly robust for an industry still ravaged by a pandemic. All together, the segments tracked by Retail Dive using U.S. Commerce Department numbers saw sales rise 11% year over year to $185.6 billion, with non-store sales (mostly e-commerce) rising 29.1%.
Some segments did particularly well. Sporting goods stores spiked 22.4%, while general stores rose 3.7% and furniture and home goods sales edged up 1.2%.
But others continued to suffer, most notably department stores, with a dismal 10.3% year-over-year plunge. That likely has much to do with the 19.9% nosedive in apparel sales, a segment already in decline before the pandemic alleviated the need for new clothes.
Electronics stores saw their sales drop 3.1% year over year, but brighter days could be in store as parents contemplate a need for tech as many schools across the country plan virtual learning at all grade levels. And much of that, like most shopping, will continue to take place online, notes Marwan Forzley, CEO of business-to-business payments platform Veem.
“It appears that consumers are keen to prepare for what will be a very interesting back-to-school return and start to the major shopping season,” Forzley said in emailed comments. “Supplies and electronics are expected to be in high demand even with schools reporting they will implement remote and/or hybrid attendance models.”
But, with many stores reopening, e-commerce’s pandemic-fueled rise is ebbing somewhat, with its penetration actually falling from an April peak, in the middle of the lockdown of nonessential stores, according to GlobalData Retail research.
“This supports our contention that, contrary to many predictions, online is not going to soar much further nor will it dominate or decimate physical retail,” GlobalData Retail Managing Director Neil Saunders said in emailed comments.
- June 2020
Total monthly sales: $179.22B
Overall June retail sales among the sectors covered by Retail Dive, using U.S. Commerce Department numbers, rose 11% year over year. The bounce reflects some pent-up demand, with consumer sentiment and spending power propped up by the government’s pandemic-related support checks and unemployment payments. E-commerce soared 36% to $80 billion, as shoppers’ interest in returning to stores remains muted.
But the gains did little to mend the frayed nerves of many analysts, who note that, with the COVID-19 outbreak gaining strength in many areas of the U.S., retail’s near-term prospects, less than six months from the holiday season, remain cloudy.
“Retail sales may have had a strong showing for June, but that’s old news given how quickly the coronavirus resurgence is beating up the economy,” Robert Frick, corporate economist at Navy Federal Credit Union, said in emailed comments. “Layoffs from the resurgence, bankruptcies, and support industries to those mainly affected by the coronavirus point to a slowing recovery, and a poor showing for retail sales this month. This will put more pressure on Congress to continue some level of support to the millions of Americans without jobs due to the coronavirus — support that ends this month.”
Wells Fargo Chief Economist Jay Bryson sounded an alarm over the Labor Department’s weekly jobless claims report, also released Thursday, marking 1.3 million unemployment claims during the previous week. In emailed comments, Bryson called that “frustratingly elevated,” adding that the resulting 11.9% unemployment rate “is another illustration of just how weak the labor market remains at present.”
If the pandemic-specific unemployment aid isn’t renewed, “many of those now opening their wallets will find they quickly empty and will shut them for a considerable time,” GlobalData Retail Managing Director Neil Saunders said in emailed comments. “That will stop and reverse retail growth.”
Some retail sectors have plenty to worry about even now. While the closure of gyms helped push up the month’s sporting goods sales 26% from June last year to $8 billion, apparel sales plummeted another 25%. Segments that previously seemed to benefit from the pandemic’s stay-at-home orders took a hit in June, with electronics sales falling 12% and furniture sales ticking down 1%.
While e-commerce enjoyed another lift, its share of overall spending “has declined since the peak of the lockdown in April,” Saunders said. Plus, there’s a downside, as retailers lose on the bottom line due to the channel’s margin squeeze, he noted.
- May 2020
Total monthly sales: $172.78B
Retail sales in May, as tracked by Retail Dive using the U.S. Commerce Department’s numbers, ticked up 1.1% year over year. But they soared 28.2% from April as many nonessential stores reopened after being shut due to the pandemic.
The government found a 1.4% year-over-year sales decline, and a month-over-month surge of 16.8%, but those numbers include auto and gasoline sales, and spending at bars and restaurants, which Retail Dive does not include.
The variations among sectors have been especially stark in the pandemic months, and May was no exception. Apparel sales, which have plummeted the last two months, bounced back 266% from April, but the segment’s year-over-year decline of 63.7% was still devastating. Department store sales fell 26.4% year over year, making their 46.9% recovery from April small consolation.
Non-store sales (mostly e-commerce) continued their meteoric rise, increasing 32% from last year and 10.9% from April. But GlobalData Retail researchers found that non-store’s proportion of sales fell from April’s 18.4% to 16.4% in May.
“This underlines our view that while digital sales have been elevated by this crisis, the proportion of trade taken by online during the period when most non-essential shops were shut will not be sustained as the retail economy starts to reopen,” GlobalData Retail Managing Director Neil Saunders said in emailed comments.
While May’s performance suggests a decent recovery, there are several dispiriting caveats, including whether the bounce could peter out as demand falls off again.
“How much of the spending was from pent-up demand and how much was fueled by government checks is what’s now up for debate,” Robert Frick, corporate economist at Navy Federal Credit Union, said in emailed comments. “To continue this strong spending, we’ll need more strong job growth, and, for the time being, continued government help. But it adds weight to the third quarter’s rebound being better than expected.”
Moreover, these sales lifts will do little to ease the financial destruction at several retailers. “[W]hile sales numbers are improving, there continues to be immense damage to the bottom line,” Saunders said. “Much of retail is a volume business and even gentle declines in sales can cause severe erosion to profits.”
- April 2020
Total monthly sales: $134.76B
Nearly all nonessential stores across the country were closed the whole month in hopes of slowing the COVID-19 pandemic and now several are reopening, so April’s record-setting results may be the worst of the year. But that’s little consolation for retailers.
Including segments like food and auto that fall outside Retail Dive’s tracking universe, the 21.6% sales decline in April from the year-ago period was even less desirable than in previous bleak periods — worse than the 18.5% drop of May 1938 or the 15.3% drop of February 1981, according to GlobalData Retail Managing Director Neil Saunders. And they fell more than most analysts expected, suggesting the consumer is in trouble. Wells Fargo researchers in May found that, while survey respondents said they do plan to resume discretionary shopping, nearly half said they’ll spend less than they did before the COVID-19 outbreak, compared to the mere 8% who plan to spend more.
“Maybe the most important aspect of the retail sales drop isn’t how far they fell, which set more records, but that forecasters so badly underestimated the numbers,” Robert Frick, corporate economist with Navy Federal Credit Union, said in emailed comments. “It shows we still don’t have a handle on the depth of the recession and how Americans are reacting to the pandemic and lockdowns.”
While stores are coming back, most with reduced hours and other limitations meant to ensure safe shopping, there won’t be much of a rebound in any month this year, according to Saunders. “[T]he pace of opening is slow, and many shoppers remain in financial distress,” he said in emailed comments. “As such, May will not be a month of celebration. Nor will June. Nor July. Nor probably the rest of this year.”
- March 2020
Total monthly sales: $158.36B
The COVID-19 pandemic was already making its mark in February, as Wells Fargo economists noted last month, but its devastating impact on retail hit hard in March. Most headlines Wednesday morning noted the worst sales decline in decades, if not ever, as the U.S. Department of Commerce’s preliminary results for the month show an 8.7% decline from February, translating to a 6.2% year over year decline, to $483.1 billion.
Those numbers, which are “adjusted for seasonal variation and holiday and trading-day differences, but not for price changes,” include auto and gasoline sales, and spending at bars and restaurants. Retail Dive chooses different numbers from the Commerce Department’s monthly reports in order to present a clearer picture of retail as understood by our readers. We use unadjusted numbers, for example, in order to best align with what’s happening on the ground, and have chosen a key set of segments that doesn’t include food and beverage businesses or autos. Our numbers show a 3.8% increase year over year for general retailers (which includes mass merchants, warehouse clubs and supercenters, but also department stores) and a 14% year-over-year increase in digital sales. Strength in those categories helped actually boost retail sales from February by 2.9%, though there still was a 1.1% decline year over year.
The picture from March, a month when most stores were still open, is harrowing, especially in key categories. Year over year, apparel sales fell a whopping 52.5%, furniture sales fell 28%, sporting goods fell 23.7% and electronics fell 15.2%. And, while some sales moved online, that’s been “nowhere near enough to offset the declines in stores,” according to Neil Saunders, managing director of GlobalData Retail.
“The first state stay at home order only came into place on March 19th and for the early part of the month most consumers were behaving normally,” he said in emailed comments. “On top of that, the latter part of March saw a boost in spending on groceries, health products and home improvement – all things that helped support retail sales. April will have no such benefits.”
Indeed, nonessential retailers have been temporarily shut down, with no reopening in sight for weeks, imperiling not just their finances but also the livelihoods of so many of their workers. Furthermore, consumers, jittery about the economy, have not only reined in their nondiscretionary spending all the more, but many have also stopped the panic-buying that supported some retailers at least to some extent last month.
“As ugly as March was, it appears to be a prelude to a hideous April,” Saunders warned.
- February 2020
Total monthly sales: $153.94B
Overall, February retail sales missed expectations — well before the effects of the outbreak of the coronavirus began to take its toll on U.S. retail. That doesn’t bode well for the rest of the year, although e-commerce and stores selling essentials will likely be spared to a great extent, according to Tim Quinlan, senior economist at Wells Fargo’s Economics Group. In January, consumer spending held up better, and that will help salvage retail’s first quarter, at least in the aggregate, according to a note from the group emailed to Retail Dive.
“The world has changed entirely since February, but heading into the crisis consumer confidence was holding up and spending was, if not robust, at least on track for modest growth in the first quarter,” he wrote, adding, “Note that online retailers saw another robust gain in February amid news that warehouse hiring is picking up even amidst the crisis. After that, we expect spending to fall. Panic buying of food and personal items for the home in March means a coming surge for these categories, if only temporarily.”
- January 2020
Total monthly sales: $153.88B
Not a lot of surprises in January, and Moody’s Vice President Mickey Chadha attributed the strength in sales to low unemployment numbers, economic growth and the “resiliency” of consumers. Plus, sales figures for the holidays, a time when many retailers gain a major proportion of their revenue, were still trickling in. For department stores, those reports ranged from middling to bleak, with declines continuing into the new year.
Meanwhile, Amazon once again posted strong growth — fueled by its move toward one-day Prime shipping — as the e-commerce giant and the whole online sector continue to grow and gain market share. But, as Retail Metrics mentioned in an emailed note, e-commerce growth (nonstore retail, as the Commerce Department calls it) was down considerably from a year ago, and January marked the first time since December 2018 that e-commerce didn’t lead other retail sectors in growth.
Clarification: Retail Dive revised the label on the chart of monthly sales to make it clear to readers what data is included.
The federal government’s retail sales reports are highly anticipated each month. This tracker is based on the government’s “unadjusted” numbers, which track with how retailers themselves report sales.
The Commerce Department revises its numbers a couple of times after they are first published. To accommodate that, and to make the data more meaningful, Retail Dive has adjusted the year-over-year comparisons in each segment to use the government’s most recently revised year-ago number.
For the 2020 graph, that means that a decline or rise each month reflects the change from the most updated figure in 2019 to the latest (or advance) number in 2020. Past data points are revised to reflect this, and moving forward this is how the data will be calculated. In most cases, the numbers change only slightly if at all, but when the government’s revisions are major, it can make a difference. The year-to-date chart is based on “advance” numbers.