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COVID-19 Crushed American Retail Sales in March

By Anders Bylund - Updated Apr 15, 2020 at 3:24PM

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The Census Bureau reported an 8.7% drop in American retail sales in March, a record-setting slump that will shake up the sector.

The novel coronavirus crisis has hit the American retail industry hard. Retail and foodservice sales fell 8.7% in March, according to a report from the U.S. Census Bureau. The reading of $483.1 billion in total retail sales stands 6.2% below the year-ago figures, and it's the lowest retail activity seen since August of 2017.

March, by the numbers

This is the largest single-month decline in the history of this Census Bureau report, which stretches back to 1992. The subprime meltdown in 2008 resulted in a 3.8% retail decline in October and a 3.9% drop in November.

A businessman leans over to get a closer look as a large red arrow crashes down through the floor at his feet.

Image source: Getty Images.

These figures include grocery-store and personal care sales, which surged 27% and 4% higher, respectively, as consumers stocked up on necessities before adhering to stay-at-home orders. On the other hand, they also include auto sales, which plunged 27% to $71.9 billion. Gas stations took a 17% revenue hit.

The early spike in grocery sales will have faded when the April report comes in, while the negative effects of the coronavirus lockdowns should remain. In other words, the next retail report should be even weaker than this one, and the next couple of quarters will be rocky even for beneficiaries of the early stockpiling action, such as grocery giant Kroger (KR 1.71%) and personal care retailer CVS (CVS 1.38%).

The retail market is going through a difficult time during the coronavirus crisis. Well-run businesses with stable balance sheets will make it through this situation, but the COVID-19 outbreak will surely destroy many weaker competitors.

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