Core retail sales stall in April but are up 28.8% year-over-year

Marianne Wilson
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Retail sales in the United States unexpectedly stalled in April as consumers pulled back in certain categories following a sharp increase in March.

According to the National Retail Federation, retail sales were down 1.3% seasonally adjusted from March but rose  28.8% unadjusted year-over-year. That compared with a month-over-month increase of 7.6% and a year-over-year increase of 18.9% in March. NRF’s numbers are up 18.3% year-over-year on a three-month moving average. (NRF’s calculation of retail sales excludes automobile dealers, gasoline stations and restaurants.)

Despite month-over-month declines in two-thirds of retail categories, April retail sales increased across the board on a year-over-year basis, led by massive increases in retail sectors such as clothing, furniture and sporting goods stores that were ordered to close last spring.  

“Today’s year-over-year numbers are off the charts in some categories, reflecting the disparity between retailers that could remain open a year ago and those that were forced to shut down,” stated NRF chief economist Jack Kleinhenz. “Consumers may have tapped the brakes slightly in April compared with March, but it was like going from 100 mph to 85 mph compared with last year. The fuel from stimulus checks gave a strong boost to spending in March and the fact that April numbers are very close shows spending is clearly going forward and still strong.”

The U.S. Census Bureau said overall retail sales in April were unchanged seasonally adjusted from March but up 51.2% year-over-year. That compares with increases of 10.1% month-over-month and 29 % year-over-year in March. (Most stores were ordered to close beginning in mid-March last year.) Despite occasional month-over-month declines, sales have grown year-over-year every month since June 2020, according to Census data.

"The Census Bureau's Advance monthly sales for retail and food services show a slow but steady return to normalcy," commented Michael Brown, partner in the consumer practice at Kearney. "Dramatic increase in apparel and food service sales vs. last year foreshadow what is yet to come this summer as mask mandates are lifted and the country starts to reopen. Vacations, back to work and back to school will fuel demand and sales in apparel and general merchandise. However growing supply chain challenges throughout the country and conservative planning by retailers could limit how much of that demand can be satisfied."

Specifics from key retail sectors are below.

  • Clothing and clothing accessory stores were down 5.1 percent month-over-month seasonally adjusted but up 711.3 percent unadjusted year-over-year.
  • Furniture and home furnishings stores were down 0.7 percent month-over-month seasonally adjusted but up 199.2 percent unadjusted year-over-year.
  • Sporting goods stores were down 3.6 percent month-over-month seasonally adjusted but up 155 percent unadjusted year-over-year.
  • Electronics and appliance stores were up 1.2 percent month-over-month seasonally adjusted and up 139.9 percent unadjusted year-over-year.
  • Building materials and garden supply stores were down 0.4 percent month-over-month seasonally adjusted but up 32.9 percent unadjusted year-over-year.
  • Health and personal care stores were up 1 percent month-over-month seasonally adjusted and up 24.6 percent unadjusted year-over-year.
  • Online and other non-store sales were down 0.6 percent month-over-month seasonally adjusted but up 14.8 percent unadjusted year-over-year.
  • General merchandise stores were down 4.9 percent month-over-month seasonally adjusted but up 13.6 percent unadjusted year-over-year.
  • Grocery and beverage stores were up 0.4 percent month-over-month seasonally adjusted and up 0.3 percent unadjusted year-over-year.