(Reuters) – U.S. retail sales experienced a record rise in May as 2.5 million Americans went back to work and people began moving about more freely, although the rebound retraces only a fraction of the historic drops in March and April amid the coronavirus lockdowns.
FILE PHOTO: A customer pays for his purchase in the doorway of Dave’s New York, a retail store, as phase one of reopening after lockdown begins, during the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in New York City, New York, U.S., June 8, 2020. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid/File Photo
The Commerce Department on Tuesday said overall retail receipts rose 17.7% last month after falling by a record 14.7% in April. The gain exceeded the previous record increase of 6.7% in October 2001 as Americans resumed spending following what was then a record pullback in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.
Retail sales had been expected to jump 8.0% last month, according to a Reuters poll of economists.
While certainly an eye-catching bounce, it retraces only a portion of the sales drop registered in the record back-to-back declines in the two previous months when widespread stay-at-home orders were imposed to stop the spread of COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the novel coronavirus. In addition to April’s record plunge, sales had tumbled more than 8% in March.
The U.S. economy dropped into recession in February as the viral outbreak brought a record-long expansion to an abrupt end. Employment fell by about 22 million in March and April, but payrolls rose unexpectedly in May by just over 2.5 million, supporting the thesis that consumer spending may be recovering and that the worst of the downturn may have passed.
The sales rebound was helped by strong auto sales as the relaxing of lockdowns across the country allowed car dealership showrooms to reopen. May’s sales rate climbed above 12 million vehicles per year after dropping below 9 million in April, according to Wards Intelligence.
The closely watched “retail control” figure, which further excludes building materials, food services and gasoline sales as well as setting aside automotive-related sales, rose by a record 11.0%, the report showed. Economists had been expecting the figure, which most closely tracks the consumer spending component of gross domestic product, to see a gain of 4.7%.