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US Retail Sales Lose 16.4% in Worst Month Ever, Gold Prices Hit Session Highs

Retail sales in the US saw the steepest monthly plunge in history, dropping below expectations for April. Sales fell 16.4% after dropping 8.3% the month before, beating an already dismal forecast of a 12% plunge. The coronavirus lockdown has dealt a major blow to the retail industry, with brick-and-mortar stores closed down nationwide. With tens of millions of Americans out of work, spending on non-essential items has fallen.

Key Takeaways

  • Retail sales fell 16% vs. a fall of 8.3% the month before and a drop of 12% expected.
  • Sales saw the worst month since records began in 1992, beating the record set by the previous month.
  • Clothing and accessories stores saw the steepest drop with a 78.8% decline in sales in April alone.

Retail sales plunged dramatically in April, led by reduced demand in clothing and accessories stores which lost 78.8% in sales. Sales in restaurants and bars fell 29.5%, and grocery store sales fell 13.2%. Meanwhile, sales in online (non-store) retailers saw an 8.4% increase as ecommerce picked up some of the slack. Many retailers will not survive the pandemic, and a recent survey showed that over 25% of retailers are unsure of whether or not they’ll be able to stay in business until the holiday season. Major retailers like J.Crew and Neiman Marcus have already closed their doors for good.

While some businesses actually re-opened last month amid lighter restrictions approved by mayors and governors around the country, sales plummeted further. The rate of unemployment is now at 14.7%, with real unemployment above 22%. Spending on non-essential items is likely out of budget for many Americans now faced with difficult financial situations.

Report Data

Total spending came in at $403.9 billion, with losses led by the collapsed demand for clothing and accessories. Sales in that sector have fallen 89.3% annually as of April. Overall, retail sales fell 15.1% annually in March and 17.8% annually in April. Furniture stores saw a drop of 66.5% in sales, and electronics stores lost 64.8% in sales. Sporting goods sales fell by 48.9%. Grocery stores saw 13.2% increased sales, with more people cooking at home, and food and beverages sales rose 12% as a result.

With travel restrictions and lower gasoline prices throughout April, gas station sales fell 42.8%, while sales at motor vehicle and parts dealers dropped 32.9%.

Expert Outlook

Jack Kleinhenz, chief economist at the National Retail Federation,  stated "Anxiety and fear are very strong emotions and consumer behavior may take time to adjust. But in the end, shopping is more than a transaction. It is a social activity that is part of the fabric of American life."

Retail spending accounts for 29% of GDP, and it remains to be seen whether spending will bounce back in the coming months or years.

James Knightly, chief economist at ING, voiced concern over the lighter lockdown restrictions now in place in some parts of the US. “We are going to see the re-openings gather momentum across states this month. That should be a positive, but it’s unclear how some businesses will fare,” said Kightly.

“I’m concerned that it’s just not economically viable to open some restaurants.Until you have a vaccine, you’re going to have this reluctance for people to return to what we all called normal behavior and normal spending habits.”

Mark Zandi of Moody Analytics commented on the positive impact of government benefits and the Fed stimulus package.

 “One thing that is cushioning the blow is all of the fiscal rescue money coming to households. If you add up the stimulus checks, the unemployment and other support, it nearly washes out the lost income from unemployment and lost hours,” he said. “The hit to the consumer has been cushioned significantly by the rescue package. We’re blowing through it fast. There was $2.9 trillion in rescue money and we already spent half of it. By July 4, it will be largely gone.”

Market Reaction

Gold prices have seen strong upward momentum following the release of the damning retail sales report. Spot gold last traded at $1,741.41/oz, up 0.63% with a high of $1,744.67/oz and a low of $1,729.10/oz. Spot gold soared to session highs on the news that retail sales have seen their worst month in recorded history, news that will likely impact the stock market, creating a bullish environment for gold.

Senior CIBC economist Andrew Grantham commented on the long road ahead of retailers, saying “With restrictions on capacity in stores, consumer's still hesitant to venture out, and the impact of high unemployment on discretionary purchases, the path back up in retail sales activity will be much slower than the move lower has been.”