Retail sales grew a tepid 1.2% in July, following two months of sharp gains, as millions of Americans braced for the expiration of the $600 weekly boost in unemployment benefits.
Consumers pulled back on big-ticket items like cars, building materials and sporting goods, but spent more on food, gasoline, and health and beauty products, according to numbers released Friday by the Commerce Department.
Spending increases were generally modest, with one exception: Electronics and appliance stores got a 23% boost as families stocked up on laptops, headphones and webcams to prepare for a virtual start to the school year in many parts of the country.
Overall consumer spending inched up to $536 billion, compared with $529.4 billion in June.
“Shoppers faced concerns over the continued surge of [covid] cases in many states and uncertainty about the extension of enhanced unemployment benefits,” said Jaime Ward, head of retail finance at Citizens Bank. “Retailers that have invested in their e-commerce platforms are faring better than those who rely on bricks and mortar stores.”
The uptick follows two months of surprise growth - retail sales surged a record 18.2.% in May, and 8.4% in June - after steep drop-offs the previous two months. Retail sales fell 8.3% in March, and 14.7% in April.
The pandemic has plunged the nation into the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. And while there are signs that the wealthiest have recovered, economists say it will likely take years for the rebound to reach most Americans. More than 28 million people are collecting unemployment benefits, with Black and Hispanic families among those who have been hardest-hit by the crisis.
Analysts say consumer spending patterns have shifted during the pandemic, as more shoppers buy online and rethink their purchases of discretionary goods like apparel, handbags and jewelry. More than a dozen major retailers - most of them mall-based chains or department stores - have filed for bankruptcy since April. Grocery stores, meanwhile, are seeing brisk demand as more Americans eat at home.
“Where shoppers elected to spend their money remains very uneven,” said Neil Saunders, managing director of GlobalData Retail. “While online apparel is performing very well, visits to clothing shops, especially those located in malls, are extremely suppressed. Impulse buys are down and spending on certain categories, like workwear, has all but been wiped out.”
Local journalism is essential.
The journalists of The Spokesman-Review are a part of the community. They live here. They work here. They care. You can help keep local journalism strong right now with your contribution. Thank you.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.