The infusion of stimulus payments, coupled with the broader reopening across the country, gave a boost to retail growth in March as the country reached the one-year mark since the first COVID-19 lockdowns impacted retail sales.
U.S. retail sales (excluding automotive and gasoline) increased 26.3% in March compared to the year-ago period, and online sales grew 56.8%, according to Mastercard Spending Pulse. Due to the “unique retail” situation of last March, which including stockpiling in the first half of the month and lockdowns the second, Mastercard also included 2019 comparisons to show longer term growth trends. Compared to March 2019, sales increased 14% in March 2021 and online sales rose 85.9%.
Mastercard SpendingPulse, which measures in-store and online retail sales, reported that sales in the first half of March edged up 1.6% compared to a year ago, when consumers hit stores to stock up in the face of the pandemic. In comparison, during the second half of the month, retail sales rose 46.9% year-over-year, reflecting the positive boost of the stimulus and the lockdowns that weakened retail sales in the same period in 2020.
The report noted noted that in March 2020, discretionary sectors such as apparel and jewelry experienced a dip in spend as people first started social distancing. This led to significantly elevated growth rates this March. Apparel sales rose 60.6% compared to the year-ago period. They rose 18.7% when compared to March 2019.
At the same time, essential sectors such as grocery faced the opposite situation. Grocery sales fell into negative growth territory this March when compared to the strong growth in March 2020 as consumers stocked up. However, grocery sales rose 7.5% in March 2021 when compared to March 2019.