U.S. retailers suffered a record decline in sales last month

Graphic courtesy by the New York Times

Another bleak economic reckoning from the coronavirus pandemic arrived on Wednesday: the biggest one-month plunge in U.S. retail sales in the nearly three decades of record keeping.

Grocery stores, pharmacies and other sellers of essential items experienced a surge of demand last month. But that was outweighed by a steep decline in other categories as businesses shuttered and shoppers restricted their spending.

The Commerce Department’s preliminary report showed a seasonally adjusted drop of 8.7 percent from February’s total sales, which include purchases in stores and online, auto and gasoline sales, and money spent at bars and restaurants.

Spending on cars and car parts fell by more than 25 percent in March. Sales at gas stations, pushed down by low oil prices as well as reduced commuting, fell 17 %. And sales at clothing stores fell by more than half.

Even those bleak figures do not fully capture the economic deep freeze. Most states didn’t issue shutdown orders to nonessential businesses until late March or early April, meaning data for the current month could be worse still.

Until now, the largest one-month downturn in retail sales came in the fall of 2008, when the financial crisis led spending to fall nearly 4 % for two straight months.