woman walks past a boarded up J. Crew

Retailers didn’t need the official government figures to know sales were bad last month — but the Commerce Department’s big-picture read of the COVID-19 damage was still jarring. 

Total retail and food service sales fell 21.6 percent in April from a year earlier and were down a seasonally adjusted 16.4 percent compared with March.

Apparel and accessories specialty stores were hit hardest, with April sales dropping 89.3 percent from a year earlier and down a seasonally adjusted 78.8 percent from March.

Department store sales fell 47 percent from a year ago and 28.9 percent from March.

The e-commerce channel is picking up some of the slack and saw sales rise 21.6 percent from a year ago and 8.4 percent from March. 

Matthew Shay, president and chief executive officer of the National Retail Federation, was quick to point out: “These retail sales numbers are not a surprise given the current state of affairs. The vast majority of retail stores have been closed, we are in the midst of historic unemployment and when it comes to personal finances, discretionary spending takes a back seat to essentials. Prior to this pandemic, retail was setting records in year-over-year growth, employment and investment. It is a resilient industry serving a smart consumer, and despite today’s report, we know it will be leading our nation’s economic recovery as this crisis recedes.”

Even though stores are starting to reopen in parts of the country, simply turning the lights back on and unlocking the doors will not bring the sales back. 

Dillard’s Inc. was among the first retailers to report first quarter numbers on Thursday and said sales at the 45 doors it reopened on May 5 are down 56 percent from a year earlier. The stores are operating with reduced hours and other safeguards. 

But even that is a start. 

“As we reopen stores, we see positive things happening,” said ceo William T. Dillard 2nd. “We believe people are ready to get out and shop. We are hoping this is the start of better times.”