Woman with a face mask looking at clothes inside a store. Selective focus. Concept of new normality.

Retail sales have pulled back to par for the year, but fashion’s brick-and-mortar stores are still working off a big deficit as consumer habits have changed in the pandemic.

The overall bounce back continued in October with total retail and food service sales rose a seasonally adjusted 0.3 percent compared with September and marked a 5.7 percent rise from a year ago, according to the Census Bureau’s latest monthly reading Tuesday.

For the year so far, retail and food service sales are flat with the first 10 months of 2019 — a remarkable showing considering not only the lockdown in the spring, but just how hard the economy has been hit by the pandemic. The unemployment rate shot from 4.4 percent in March to 14.7 percent in April and has yet to recover, currently standing at 6.9 percent. 

Fashion retailers, though, saw sales fall harder — and they’re still going down.

Apparel and accessories specialty stores sales logged a 4.2 percent decline from September and were down 12.6 percent from a year ago. But so far this year, the sector is down 30 percent. 

October department stores sales dropped 4.6 percent from September and were off 11.9 percent from a year earlier. So far this year, department stores are down 17 percent. 

Retail sales overall  have now logged six-straight months of gains, coming back from the worst of the pandemic shutdown.

“October retail sales remained on track despite the pandemic continuing to affect households and businesses,” said Jack Kleinhenz, chief economist of the National Retail Federation. “The steady expansion of retail sales is good news against the background of these unusual economic circumstances and climbing virus cases in recent weeks.

“Early holiday shopping appears to have supported October’s increase in sales,” he said. “The rise in COVID-19 cases continues to be a factor that weighs on consumer perceptions, sentiment and spending and there could be retrenchment if we cannot thwart this latest wave. Nonetheless, retailers are well prepared to safely fulfill holiday shopping lists, and the October results suggest so far, so good.”

The biggest and strongest retailers have managed to reestablish themselves enough to look to better times next year.

Kohl’s Corp. eked out a third-quarter profit — on an adjusted basis — and said it was planning to bring back its dividend in the first half.

Retail Sales: Back to Par

Total retail and food service sales are matching the 2019 take so far, but brick-and-mortar fashion retailers are still digging out.

January – October Sales (in billions) Change year-over-year
Nonstore retailers $764 21.9%
Building material and garden equipment dealers $367 13.2%
Grocery stores $631 11.8%
General merchandise stores (including department stores) $587 3%
Sporting goods, hobby, musical instrument and book stores $65 2.8%
Health and personal-care stores $299 1%
Retail and food services total $5,092 0%
Motor vehicle and parts dealers $1,030 -0.3%
Miscellaneous store retailers $108 -2.2%
Furniture and home furniture stores $89 -7.2%
Electronics and appliance stores $64 -14.6%
Gasoline stations $352 -16.1%
Department stores $86 -17%
Food services and drinking places $515 -19.3%
Apparel and accessories specialty stores $145 -30%
Source: Census Bureau

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