Fact Checked

Coronavirus causes record drop in retail sales, according to government estimates

Men's suit jackets hanging in a clothing storeImage: Men's suit jackets hanging in a clothing store
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The coronavirus has brought sweeping changes to life in America, and the negative economic impact is clear. New data indicates just how much activity has slowed down for the retail economy in particular.

Using preliminary data, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that estimated retail and food services sales were down 8.7% on a seasonally adjusted basis between February 2020 and March 2020 — the largest month-over-month decline since the census bureau began keeping records in 1992. Estimated sales were down in most retail categories year-over-year, too.

Which retailers have been hit hardest?

The economic outlook is especially rough for clothing stores, sporting goods and other hobby retailers, and vehicle dealers. Restaurants and bars have particularly been affected by social distancing measures and mandatory closures put in place to combat the coronavirus.

Retail category Percent change from March 2019
Clothing and accessories -50.7%
Vehicle dealers -24.9%
Furniture and home furnishing -24.6%
Restaurants and bars -23%
Sporting goods, hobby, musical instruments, and books -22.7%
Gas stations -18%
Electronics and appliances -15.9%
Health and personal care 4.3%
Building and garden materials 7.6%
Grocery stores 29.3%

The news isn’t universally bad for all retailers, though. As more Americans stay home and stock up on supplies, grocery stores and home improvement stores have seen a boost in sales.

What does this mean for Americans?

In its April Beige Book report, the Federal Reserve stated that “Economic activity contracted sharply and abruptly across all regions in the United States as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.” Accompanying the decrease in retail sales is a sharp increase in unemployment.

In the short term, individual Fed districts anticipate further layoffs as social distancing and shelter-in-place orders continue.

While people who have managed to keep their jobs may have taken pay cuts, with many industries reporting wage decreases, except for essential services like grocery stores.

What’s next?

If you’ve lost your job or your wages have been cut and you’re looking for some relief due to the loss of income, applying for unemployment benefits is a good first step.

And because some industries — such as grocery stores, home improvement stores and restaurant delivery — are adding jobs instead of laying people off, consider looking for temporary job opportunities to help offset lost income.

About the author: Gaby Lapera is a researcher and writer at Credit Karma and a personal finance expert. She also spends time working on investing and science communication. Gaby graduated with a master's degree in biological anthropolo… Read more.