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COVID-19

Retail sales were way up in May. But don’t pop the Champagne just yet.

Sabri Ben-Achour Jun 16, 2020
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A reopened clothing store in Los Angeles. U.S. retail sales climbed at a record rate in May. Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images
COVID-19

Retail sales were way up in May. But don’t pop the Champagne just yet.

Sabri Ben-Achour Jun 16, 2020
Heard on:
A reopened clothing store in Los Angeles. U.S. retail sales climbed at a record rate in May. Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images
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The Commerce Department released retail sales numbers Tuesday, and they were eye-popping — up 17.7% in the month of May. That percentage gain is a record, and it sounds like great news. But these are month-to-month comparisons, and frankly anything looks good compared to March and April. 

When New York started reopening, it was time for William Bell to go outside.

“I just want to go and run an errand,” Bell said. “I want to get out of the house.” Since he tested positive for COVID-19 antibodies, he went to the majestic, soothing aisles of Home Depot.

“I needed help picking out a flower pot, and I got the advice of someone who worked there. She literally came up right next to me and was helping me pick out the right one, and it was a little weird at first, being that close together,” Bell said. “But we both had masks on, and we just accepted it.”

Lots and lots of William Bells went shopping last month. Clothing and accessories store sales were up 188% month over month. Furniture and home furnishings up 90%. Electronics and appliances up 51%. If you take out car dealers, gas and restaurants, retail sales were actually up 1.7% in May year over year, according to the National Retail Federation, where Jack Kleinhenz is chief economist.

“It was categorically good news for the economy, and it was categorically good news for the consumer,” Kleinhenz said.

And now, let’s all go shopping for a brand-new reality check. Lindsey Piegza has one for free — she’s chief economist at Stifel.

“Yes, we did have some pent-up demand,” Piegza said. “But going forward with unemployment benefits ending, with the [Paycheck Protection Program] coming to an end, will the consumer be able to financially continue to spend at these more positive levels?”

They will not, according to Joe Brusuelas, chief economist at RSM.

“My sense is that the public doesn’t quite understand — nor do policymakers, for that matter — the fiscal cliff that awaits the economy in just six weeks,” Brusuelas said.

Six weeks is about when those additional unemployment payments end. Dazzling increases aside, retail sales are still 8% off their January peak. And lots of businesses will come back, but some won’t. David Swartz is an equity analyst at Morningstar research.

“There’s a lot of bad news out there suggesting that more stores will be closing, more restaurants will be closing and that some people will be permanently unemployed who right now may not understand that,” Swartz said.

The Federal Reserves forecasts that at the end of the year — another six months from now — the unemployment rate will be 9%.

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

What’s the outlook for vaccine supply?

Chief executives of America’s COVID-19 vaccine makers promised in congressional testimony to deliver the doses promised to the U.S. government by summer. The projections of confidence come after months of supply chain challenges and companies falling short of year-end projections for 2020. What changed? In part, drugmakers that normally compete are now actually helping one another. This has helped solve several supply chain issues, but not all of them.

How has the pandemic changed scientific research?

Over the past year, while some scientists turned their attention to COVID-19 and creating vaccines to fight it, most others had to pause their research — and re-imagine how to do it. Social distancing, limited lab capacity — “It’s less fun, I have to say. Like, for me the big part of the science is discussing the science with other people, getting excited about projects,” said Isabella Rauch, an immunologist at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland. Funding is also a big question for many.

What happened to all of the hazard pay essential workers were getting at the beginning of the pandemic?

Almost a year ago, when the pandemic began, essential workers were hailed as heroes. Back then, many companies gave hazard pay, an extra $2 or so per hour, for coming in to work. That quietly went away for most of them last summer. Without federal action, it’s mostly been up to local governments to create programs and mandates. They’ve helped compensate front-line workers, but they haven’t been perfect. “The solutions are small. They’re piecemeal,” said Molly Kinder at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “You’re seeing these innovative pop-ups because we have failed overall to do something systematically.”

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