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Shoppers Cut Back Again on Spending at Department Stores as the Holiday Season Looms

Retail sales inched up only moderately last month as consumers eschew brick and mortar for digital platforms amid a surge in the coronavirus outbreak that has led local governments to impose renewed restrictions on nonessential businesses.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, retail sales rose a seasonally adjusted 0.3% to $553.3 billion in October from the prior month, falling short of economists’ forecasts of a 0.5% increase and well below the revised 1.6% hike to $551.9 billion recorded in September. Year over year, October’s gain was 5.7%.

It marked the sixth consecutive month that Americans boosted their spending, but the momentum was considerably slower than that of the past few months due to a spike in COVID-19 infections and uncertainty ahead of the presidential election. (Former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Kamala Harris have since been declared the next President and Vice President of the United States, defeating incumbents President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence.)

Online sales continued to see advancements; the category jumped 3.1%. Shoppers also continued to make purchases at electronics and appliance stores, which logged a 1.2% incline.

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However, a number of key categories in the fashion and footwear industries posted decreases: Clothing and accessories stores as well as sporting goods and hobby stores plunged 4.2%, while miscellaneous store retailers dropped 0.9%. General merchandise stores took a 1.1% dip, and department stores suffered an even larger loss of 4.6%.

The report comes at a critical period for retailers, which have entered an earlier-than-ever and unprecedented holiday season. In an effort to adapt to the coronavirus-induced new normal, a number of chains have embraced contactless options for customers, shifted their resources to digital and evaluated their strategic partnerships. They have also proactively prepared their inventories, beefed up their workforce and implemented safety protocols at stores.

In its own calculation of retail sales, which excludes automobile dealers, gasoline stations and restaurants to focus on core retail, the National Retail Federation found that October’s numbers were up 0.2% on a seasonally adjusted basis from the previous month and up 10.6% unadjusted year over year. It maintained that the steady expansion of retail sales is cause for optimism against the backdrop of climbing coronavirus numbers in recent weeks.

“Consumers have proven their resilience and willingness to spend as we head into the heart of the holiday season, and retailers continue to demonstrate their commitment and ability to ensure safe shopping environments for their customers and their associates — with deep discounts, robust inventory and great experiences whether in store or online,” president and CEO Matthew Shay said in a statement.

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