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March retail sales rebound amid Increased vaccination and government stimulus

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WASHINGTON – Retail sales rebounded with huge gains in March as government checks fattened consumers’ bank accounts and more vaccination against COVID-19 made it easier for shoppers to get out of the house and lead the acceleration of the U.S. economy, the National Retail Federation said Thursday.

NRF“The dramatic increase of 17.7% in March retail sales over the same period last year confirms that a confident consumer is driving the economic rebound, and that should continue through the remainder of 2021,” NRF president and CEO Matthew Shay said. “American households are clearly feeling the full effect of additional fiscal stimulus, gains in the job market and the reopening of the economy. Although there have been some recent issues related to vaccines, consumer confidence remains high and an optimistic outlook for the future continues to grow. Retailers remain committed, transparent and emphatic about prioritizing customer and employee safety as they welcome shoppers back into their stores this spring.”

“Today’s data confirms reports that people are going out and spending and that in-store traffic has picked up,” NRF chief economist Jack Kleinhenz said. “After a disappointing February, there was a perfect alignment of factors supporting a surge in shopping in March. Further reopening of the economy was encouraged by economic stimulus payments, the public health situation improved with more vaccinations, employment grew and there was seasonal activity around Passover, Easter and spring break. Even with some stimulus money going to savings, consumers’ finances are healthy, and they are willing to spend. Retail sales supported by rigorous fiscal and monetary policy continue to be a bright spot in the economy and have provided momentum during this awful pandemic.”

The U.S. Census Bureau today said overall retail sales in March were up 9.8% seasonally adjusted from February and up 27.7% year-over-year. That compares with a monthly decrease of 2.7% and a yearly gain of 6.7% in February. Despite occasional month-over-month declines, sales have grown year-over-year every month since June 2020, according to Census data.

NRF’s calculation of retail sales – which excludes automobile dealers, gasoline stations and restaurants to focus on core retail – showed March was up 7.4% seasonally adjusted from February and up 17.7% unadjusted year-over-year. That compared with a month-over-month decrease of 3.4%  and an increase of 7.2% year-over-year in February. NRF’s numbers were up 12.7% unadjusted year-over-year on a three-month moving average.

March retail sales increased across the board on a month-over-month basis and in every category except grocery on a year-over-year basis. The year-over-year comparisons were dramatic in some categories – clothing store sales more than doubled – but were skewed because most stores were ordered closed in mid-March last year because of the pandemic. Grocery stores – the only category to show a year-over-year decline – were among the few retailers allowed to remain open.
Specifics from key retail sectors include:

  • Clothing and clothing accessory stores were up 18.3% month-over-month seasonally adjusted and up 104.6% unadjusted year-over-year.
  • Sporting goods stores were up 23.5% month-over-month seasonally adjusted and up 78.2% unadjusted year-over-year.
  • Furniture and home furnishings stores were up 5.9 percent month-over-month seasonally adjusted and up 49.6% unadjusted year-over-year.
  • Building materials and garden supply stores were up 12.1 percent month-over-month seasonally adjusted and up 32.4% unadjusted year-over-year.
  • Online and other non-store sales were up 6% month-over-month seasonally adjusted and up 30.7% unadjusted year-over-year.
  • Electronics and appliance stores were up 10.5% month-over-month seasonally adjusted and up 29.4% unadjusted year-over-year.
  • Health and personal care stores were up 5.7% month-over-month seasonally adjusted and up 7.7% unadjusted year-over-year.
  • General merchandise stores were up 9% month-over-month seasonally adjusted and up 6.1% unadjusted year-over-year.
  • Grocery and beverage stores were up 0.7% month-over-month seasonally adjusted but down 10.2% unadjusted year-over-year.

March’s gains come as NRF is forecasting that 2021 retail sales will increase between 6.5 percent and 8.2 percent over 2020, for a total between $4.33 trillion and $4.4 trillion. Retail sales during 2020 increased 6.6 percent despite the pandemic, beating the previous record growth rate of 6.3 percent in 2004.


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