woman shopping with mask

Retail sales charged back in January, giving a particularly big boost to department stores, which shot up a seasonally adjusted 23.5 percent compared with December, according to the Census Bureau.  

Apparel and accessories specialty stores posted a more-moderate gain of 5 percent. 

The month-to-month numbers, which smooth out changes in the calendar, offered an important sign for an industry still trying to claw out from the coronavirus. 

Against a year earlier, January sales at department stores were down 3 percent and fashion specialty stores were off 11.1 percent. 

The year-over-year reading might show that fashion is still in the hole, but eyes are firmly cast forward as companies look to rejigger coming out of the pandemic. 

January numbers were a big boost. 

Overall retail and food service sales grew 5.3 percent last month, compared with December, where economists were looking for a gain of just 1 percent. Against a year earlier, sales were down 1 percent. 

While any sign of growth is welcome in the industry, there is little sense that it will ever revert back to how business was circa 2019, largely because of the step change in web sales as shoppers continue to seek to social distance. 

Non-store retailers, a category dominated by e-commerce that includes fashion web sales, saw January sales rise 11 percent from December and the category was up 28.7 percent from a year earlier, going from strength to strength. 

Overall, 2021 is expected to show a strong rebound in consumer activity. 

Customer Growth Partners recently predicted retail sales this year would increase 8.1 percent to a record $4.26 trillion even though the year is starting in the midst of a pandemic. 

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