Clothing, furniture retailers drive May retail sales increase, still well below 2019 levels

Dan Berthiaume
Senior Editor, Technology
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Consumer spending rose dramatically from April as retailers closed by the coronavirus pandemic began to reopen, but was down year-over-year.

May sales rose 11% from April and 1.7% year-over-year, according to the National Retail Federation, which excludes automobile dealers, gasoline stations and restaurants in order to focus on core retail retail.  

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, overall retail sales during May 2020 were up 17.7% seasonally adjusted from the prior month but down 6.1% year-over-year. That follows a record-setting 14.7% month-over-month drop in April 2020. (NRF’s monthly increase was lower than the Census Bureau’s because the categories NRF excludes were among those most affected by the shutdowns.)

"The economy kicked off in May as retailers and other businesses reopened and both stimulus money and supplemental unemployment checks fueled spending driven by pent-up demand from two months of shutdowns,” NRF chief economist Jack Kleinhenz said. “But full recovery is still a long way off. Comparisons against April have to be taken in context because April was a full month when almost everything that wasn’t deemed ‘essential’ was shut down. Spending has improved considerably but it’s still far below where it was a year ago, and while the freefall in consumer confidence is over, unemployment remains high and confidence is still at recession levels.”

Kleinhenz cautioned that the reliability of May’s numbers could be questionable because stores in many areas remained closed and retailers were not in their offices to respond to the Census Bureau’s monthly survey of sales data.

Every category of retail saw month-over-month gains, with some of them dramatic, especially among retailers that had been mostly closed the month before. Clothing stores were up an historically high 188%, while furniture stores were up 89.7% and sporting goods stores were up 88.2%. But year-over-year gains online and at retailers that had remained open during the pandemic, such as grocery stores and drug stores, were largely offset by drops in other categories.

Specifics from key retail sectors during May include:

  • Clothing and clothing accessory stores were up 188% month-over-month seasonally adjusted but down 63.3% unadjusted year-over-year.
  • Furniture and home furnishings stores were up 89.7% month-over-month seasonally adjusted but down 23.2% unadjusted year-over-year.
  • Sporting goods stores were up 88.2% month-over-month seasonally adjusted and up 6% unadjusted year-over-year.
  • Electronics and appliance stores were up 50.5% month-over-month seasonally adjusted but down 30.9% unadjusted year-over-year.
  • Building materials and garden supply stores were up 10.9% month-over-month seasonally adjusted and up 10.8% unadjusted year-over-year.
  • Online and other non-store sales were up 9% month-over-month seasonally adjusted and up 25.3% unadjusted year-over-year.
  • General merchandise stores were up 6% month-over-month seasonally adjusted and up 1.6% unadjusted year-over-year.
  • Grocery and beverage stores were up 2% month-over-month seasonally adjusted and up 14.3% unadjusted year-over-year.
  • Health and personal care stores were up 0.4% month-over-month seasonally adjusted but down 12.6% unadjusted year-over-year.