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August Retail Sales: Are the Winners and Losers Starting to Plateau?

Posted September 24, 2020 by Bill Walker

The Census Bureau released the Advance Monthly Sales for Retail and Food Services, August 2020 report last week. Adjusted for seasonal variations, advance estimates of U.S. retail and food services sales for August 2020 were $537.5 billion. That’s an increase of 0.6 percent from July and a 2.6 percent boost versus August of last year. Total sales for the three-month period June through August of this year were up 2.4 percent over the same period in 2019

This has been an interesting report to follow over the course of this year since these sectors and the industries within them have been so heavily impacted by the pandemic. The August report reveals some clear winners and losers when comparing sales for June through August 2020 versus year ago. However, some of these upward and downward trends may be leveling off.

The winners

Non-store retailers, i.e., online retailers

The convenience and safety of online shopping has special appeal amid the pandemic. It’s no wonder online retailers topped $83.14 billion in sales for August, as compared to August 2019 when the industry pulled in $67.9 billion. The August numbers are only slightly higher than June ($82.9 billion) and July ($83.12 billion), but sales in this industry have increased dramatically — up 23.2 percent — as compared to that same three-month period in 2019.

Building materials and garden supplies

It seems that people continue to spend money on home improvement projects and repairs as building materials and garden supply stores saw $37.3 billion in August sales. This industry, which is also helped by good numbers in the residential construction industry, has been holding relatively steady in recent months with $36.5 billion in sales in July and $37.4 billion in June. But compared to that same three-month period in 2019, the industry is up 16.8 percent in 2020.

Sporting goods, hobby, musical instruments, and book stores

With more time on their hands and more time at home, people also seem to be focusing on their hobbies and other leisure activities. August sales in sporting goods, hobby, musical instruments, and book stores were at $7.4 billion. While that is down from June ($8.3 billion) and July ($7.9 billion), this industry is still experiencing a 16.8 percent lift as compared to the same three-month period in 2019.

Food & beverage stores

Food and beverage stores remain a bright spot amid the pandemic, even six months in. Sales for August topped $71.05 billion — a fairly steady pace from June ($71.50 billion) and July ($71.90 billion). Comparing August of 2020 to August 2019, when sales were at just $64.60 billion, the spike in this industry becomes clearer. The year-over-year trend for this three-month period is also stark with sales up 11.1 percent in 2020.

The losers

Clothing & clothing accessories stores

From mandated closures to people cutting non-essential spending, clothing and accessories stores have experienced a slump as a result of the pandemic. For the three-month period ending in August, clothing and accessories sales are down 22.6 percent year-over-year. However, there may be some good news. August’s sales were at $17.7 billion, and numbers have been trending upward for three months now with June at $16.9 billion in sales and July at $17.2 billion.

Food services & drinking places

Restaurants and bars have been among the hardest hit businesses amid the pandemic with mandatory closures in numerous states. August sales were at $54.6 billion versus $64.6 billion year ago, and sales are down 19 percent year-over-year for the three-month period ending with August. However, the industry may be starting to rally. August sales continue a positive trend, up from June ($50.1 billion) and July ($52.2 billion).

Gas stations

With fewer people driving to work and school, fewer vacations, and fewer business trips, gas stations have felt the pain of the pandemic. Year-over-year sales within this industry are down 17.2 percent for the three-month period ending in August. But things may be turning around for gas stations. August saw $35.2 billion in sales. This is up from both June ($33.6 billion) and July ($35.0 billion).

Electronics and appliance stores

Similar to clothing and accessories stores, electronics and appliance stores have experienced a substantial dip in sales this year. For the three-month period ending in August, this industry saw a 9 percent decrease in year-over-year sales as consumers cut back on spending. The numbers appear to show more positive news in recent months, however. In August, electronics and appliances stores sales reached $7.9 billion, continuing the upward trend from June ($6.5 billion) and July ($7.8 billion).

Moving in the right direction

All in all, the numbers in August’s Advance Monthly Sales for Retail and Food Services report show signs of hope that our economy may be trying to rally. As you can see above, the “winners,” many of which have experienced big jumps in sales as a result of the pandemic, are starting to level off and return to a more normal pace of sales. And the “losers,” while still behind 2019 sales levels, are beginning to trend upward — hopefully a sign that they are making a comeback.

As we work toward regaining a pre-pandemic status quo in our economy, the question is: Will we be able to maintain these trends as we head into the fall with the inevitable convergence of the COVID-19 and the flu season, not to mention the uncertainty surrounding the election? Time will tell.

You can learn more about how these and other industries have been impacted by COVID-19 by visiting our free COVID-19 webpage.

Photo by Burak K from Pexels
 

Tags: economy, COVID-19, retail

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