March Retail Sales Bounce Back

Evan Clark
·2 min read

March sales at fashion retailers showed continued improvement over February — and were a night and day difference from a year ago, when the coronavirus first sent shoppers into lockdown.

Apparel and accessories specialty stores drove seasonally adjusted sales up 18.3 percent from February and saw a mammoth 101 percent increase over a year ago, according to the Commerce Department’s monthly reading. Department stores were up 13 percent from a month ago and up 25.6 percent from March 2019.

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Fashion’s brick-and-mortar crowd managed to pace the non-store retailers, a category that is dominated by e-commerce sites and logged a 6 percent increase in sales from February and a 25.6 percent year-over-year jump.

But it’s not as simple as brick-and-mortar fighting back after an intense year when consumers leaned into e-commerce as they stayed home. The official figures tally sales by distribution and not by company and the big retail operations all have both store and e-commerce operations and are working to make sure they work together more than ever. For instance, many retailers raced to implement buy online, pick up in store programs during the pandemic and are now doubling down on that functionality as consumers have taken to the process.

Overall retail sales rose 9.8 percent from February — better than the 5.5 percent gain economists predicted on average. Compared with a year earlier, sales shot up 27.7 percent.

Economists took heart from bounce back.

“Wow!” said Stephen Stanley​, chief economist of Amherst Pierpont, in an analysis noting that retail sales “exploded higher.”

“Last month offered a perfect storm, as the economy reopened significantly in most states, the weather was much better, and households received yet another massive round of rebate checks. The consumer has consistently surprised to the upside since the lockdowns ended last spring, and that dynamic has certainly continued so far in 2021,” Stanley said.

“Some of this latest surge will unwind, as the boost from the rebate checks will be short‐lived, probably continuing into April and then fading quickly. However, with the economy reopening, the underlying trend will remain robust for the foreseeable future,” he said.

And Matthew Shay, president and chief executive officer of the National Retail Federation, 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.”

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