US retail sales up a record 17.7% in partial rebound

Coronavirus

FILE – In this May 7, 2020, file photo a woman sitting on a stoop reading a book in the sun is seen reflected by a closed clothing store’s window on West Broadway in the SoHo neighborhood of the Manhattan borough in New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer, file)

BALTIMORE (AP) — U.S. retail sales jumped by a record 17.7% from April to May, with spending partially rebounding after the coronavirus had shut down businesses, flattened the economy and paralyzed consumers during the previous two months.

The Commerce Department’s report Tuesday showed that retail sales have retraced some of the record-setting month-to-month plunges of March (8.3%) and April (14.7%) as businesses have increasingly reopened. Still, the pandemic’s damage to retail sales remains severe, with purchases still down 6.1% from a year ago.

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The virus-induced recession not only diminished spending in most sectors of the economy. It has also accelerated shifts in where people shop and what they buy.

The changes have in many cases intensified the financial strain on traditional physical stores and boosted online purchases. Sales at non-store retailers, which include internet companies like Amazon and eBay, rose 9% in May after posting growth of 9.5% in April. Clothiers achieved a stunning 188% monthly gain, but that was not enough to offset a 63.4% drop over the past 12 months.

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Retail sales account for roughly half of all consumer spending, which fuels about 70% of total economic activity. The rest of consumer spending includes services, from cellphones and internet contracts to gym memberships and child care.

Last month’s bounce-back comes against the backdrop of an economy that may have begun what could be a slow and prolonged recovery. In May, employers added 2.5 million jobs, an unexpected increase that suggested that the job market has bottomed out.

Nearly 80% of small retailers and restaurants tracked by the scheduling tool Homebase that were closed in mid-April have since reopened. Yet these smaller businesses remain under pressure. Their stresses in part reflect changes emerging as social distancing has become essential and shopping habits evolve.

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One such retailer, CPW, a women’s clothing store, has been in business for 30 years on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. A three-month shutdown resulting from the virus sent the store’s sales sinking 20% to 30% even as the owner, Linda Wolff, packed and delivered orders to customer homes. Though CPW reopened for curbside pickup a week ago, Wolff said she hasn’t rung up a single such sale.

“This is my heart and soul,” she said. “I am exhausted from all the worrying.”

Some national chains, by contrast, say they have so far avoided their worst fears, a sign of how the damage from the shutdowns has varied widely across the retail landscape.

Macy’s CEO Jeff Gennette has said that his company’s reopened stores are regaining 50% of their typical business. Teen retailer American Eagle Outfitters is faring even better, averaging roughly 95% of its normal sales levels.

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But analysts caution that some of the gains thus far probably reflect the impact of temporary government aid and expanded unemployment benefits in the face of a deep recession. The jobless rate is a historically high 13.3% by the government’s standard measure and an even worse 21.2% by the broadest gauge of unemployment. For now, Americans are spending disproportionately more on essentials and less on luxuries.

“Our wants and our needs have changed permanently until we find a health fix,” said Stacy Widlitz, president of SW Retail Advisors, a retail consultancy. “Shoppers are focusing on comfort, home and well-being.”

The lockdowns sent many mall-based chains further into peril. These retailers furloughed workers, slashed costs to preserve dwindling cash reserves and, in the cases of Nieman Marcus, J.Crew and JC Penney, filed for bankruptcy protection.

Related: Victoria’s Secret closing 250 stores across U.S. and Canada

These troubles have contrasted with renewed strength for Walmart, Target and Home Depot, which were deemed essential businesses from the start and were allowed to remain open.

For a group of 35 non-essential retailers, including department stores and jewelry chains, combined losses reached $2.5 billion for the three-month period that ended in May, according to GlobalData Retail. That compares with their combined profit of $8.9 billion in the year-ago period.

Far better off were essential retailers, including dollar chains, discounters and food stores. For that group, profits reached $8.9 billion for the quarter, down only slightly from $9.1 billion from the year-ago period. Some of these companies had invested heavily in their online operations.

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Coresight Research, a retail research firm, expects between 20,000 and 25,000 stores in the United States to close this year, about 60% of them in malls. That’s up from the firm’s previous estimate in mid-March of 15,000 closings, and it would surpass the record 9,000 stores closures last year. In the past week, Zara, Children’s Place and Signet Jewelers all announced hundreds of store closures and stressed the rising importance of their online presence.

“The retail sector was already overstored before COVID reared its ugly head,” said Craig Johnson, president of Customer Growth Partners, a retail consultancy. “This is a forced rightsizing.”

Many local businesses were also negatively affected by the coronavirus pandemic.

Timshel Cafe in Neenah announced in late July that it would close its doors. The location won’t be empty long – Lawlss Coffee will open its second location in Timshel’s place.

After more than 30 years, Titletown Fitness announced it would shut down permanently in early July. Owners tell WFRV Local 5 says they lost about 40 percent of their members after being closed for about two months.

In late June, Green Bay’s Black and Tan Grille announced it would temporarily close its dining services, effective immediately, through at least August.

On May 27, it was announced that Fond du Lac’s Schreiner’s Restaurant would close permanently after over 80 years in business due to financial challenges created by COVID-19.

On the cusp of Memorial Day weekend, The Cannery in Green Bay announced it would close its door permanently due to challenges imposed by the virus.

Coronavirus has been the last straw for many Northeast Wisconsin businesses – Foremost Farms USA announced it will close its Chilton cheese plant facility in July after the market change due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In early May, Harbor House announced Neenah’s JumpStart Auto Repair, which used the proceeds from customers’ auto service to fund auto repairs for domestic abuse survivors, would not reopen, saying the decision comes after the financial strain caused by a shift in business due to the pandemic followed the discovery that property had been stolen from JumpStart’s garage.

In the same time frame, Harmony Pizza of Appleton announced it would be closing its doors after nearly three years in business, citing pressures to achieve a strong service to the community and the coronavirus.

Manitowoc’s Holy Family College announced it would cease operations by the end of August. The Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity Sponsored Ministries says the decision was made due to increased operating costs, unstable enrollment, and the impact of the coronavirus.

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