Retail sales slip in May but show strong year-over-year growth

Dan Berthiaume
Senior Editor, Technology
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Retail sales remained at elevated levels in May 2021, despite month-to-month fluctuations.

According to the National Retail Federation, retail sales – excluding automobile dealers, gasoline stations and restaurants  –  fell 1.2% in May from April, but were up 17.3% unadjusted year-over-year.  That compared with a month-over-month decline of 0.6% and a year-over-year increase of 30.9% in April. NRF’s numbers were up 22.3% unadjusted year-over-year on a three-month moving average.

Unadjusted May sales as calculated by NRF totaled $388.6 billion, the second-highest level of spending on record, outpaced only by $414.7 billion in December.

NRF chief economist Jack Kleinhenz noted that Month-over-month comparisons and percentages of change don’t tell the entire story.

 “We are at a highly elevated level of spending, with dollar amounts in recent months some of the highest we’ve ever seen," he explained. "Long-term trends in the number of dollars spent tell much more about the continuing economic recovery than whether sales were up or down from month to month"

 Retail sales as calculated by NRF were the second-highest on record in May, topped only by holiday spending in December. Demand has continued to be strong even as the concentrated impact from government stimulus has faded, according to Kleinhenz.

"There is still pent-up demand for retail goods and consumers are likely to remain on a growth path into the summer," he said.

The May report comes less than a week after NRF revised its 2021 annual retail sales forecast. Sales this year are now expected to increase between 10.5% and 13.5% over 2020 to between $4.44 trillion and $4.56 trillion.Online and other non-store sales, which are included in the NRF total, are expected to increase between 18-23%, to between $1.09 trillion and $1.13 trillion. As with NRF’s monthly calculation, the forecast excludes auto dealers, gas stations and restaurants.

Sales in May declined month-over-month in two-thirds of retail categories, but were up year-over-year in every category except grocery stores, led by usually large increases at retailers like clothing, electronics and furniture stores that were ordered to close last spring. Specifics from key retail sectors include:

•    Clothing and clothing accessory stores were up 3% month-over-month seasonally adjusted and up 198.7% unadjusted year-over-year.
•    Electronics and appliance stores were down 3.4% month-over-month seasonally adjusted but up 90.8% unadjusted year-over-year.
•    Furniture and home furnishings stores were down 2.1% month-over-month seasonally adjusted but up 64.7% unadjusted year-over-year.
•    Sporting goods stores were down 0.8% month-over-month seasonally adjusted but up 40.9% unadjusted year-over-year.
•    Health and personal care stores were up 1.8% month-over-month seasonally adjusted and up 25.8% unadjusted year-over-year.
•    Building materials and garden supply stores were down 5.9% month-over-month seasonally adjusted but up 10.1% unadjusted year-over-year.
•    General merchandise stores were down 3.3% month-over-month seasonally adjusted but up 9.3% unadjusted year-over-year.
•    Online and other non-store sales were down 0.8% month-over-month seasonally adjusted but up 8.2% unadjusted year-over-year.
•    Grocery and beverage stores were up 1% month-over-month seasonally adjusted but down 0.2% unadjusted year-over-year.