Consumers Are Starting to Shop Again as Lockdowns Ease on Retailers

Consumers in the United States opened up their wallets last month as state and local governments began to ease coronavirus-induced lockdowns on nonessential businesses.

According to the Commerce Department, retail sales — a measure of purchases at stores and online as well as automobiles, gas and dining sales — surged 17.7% to $485.5 billion for the month of May. Although the figure was down 6.1% year over year, economists had forecasted a gain of only 8.4% in retail sales.

In the fashion and footwear spaces, sales at clothing and clothing accessories stores saw a whopping spike of 188% month over month, and sporting goods and hobby stores’ sales jumped 88.2%. General merchandise stores climbed 6%, while miscellaneous retail stores were up 13.6% and non-store retailers grew 9%.

The report was the latest sign of the American economy’s potential rebound from disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, which shut down large swaths of the country from mid-March through April. Early this month, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that U.S. employers added 2.5 million jobs and the unemployment rate declined to 13.3%. It marked the largest single-month employment surge in U.S. history since at least 1939.

In contrast, April saw retail sales fall a revised 14.7% to $412.6 billion — nearly double the drop-off recorded in March, which was the worst monthly decline since the Census Bureau began collecting data in 1992.

From March through May, retail sales decreased 10.5% from the same period a year ago. As the deadly outbreak spread throughout the country, scores of stores, offices and businesses shuttered their doors for weeks, forcing many nonessential employers to terminate or furlough their workers. Over the past 12 weeks, more than 44 million people have filed for unemployment benefits.

Throughout May, however, states had begun to loosen restrictions to varying degrees, prompting a slight uptick in consumer spending. With all 50 states now having lifted stay-at-home orders, many workers are anticipated to return to their posts and nonessential retailers are gradually expected to reopen their doors. By now, the majority of Americans have also received their federal stimulus checks and additional unemployment insurance distributed as part of the CARES Act enacted at the end of March.

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