US quarterly retail update – From ‘great uncertainty’ to ‘clear recovery’

August 2, 2021

As the US retail sector heads into the second half of the year, analysts note the landscape has shifted from great uncertainty to clear recovery.

Key indicators, including the National Retail Federation’s annual forecast and Census monthly sales figures all indicate the sector is on the up after the unprecedented hardship of 2020.

Here’s what the data reveals…

A revised growth forecast


In June the National Retail Federation (NRF) issued their revised sales forecast for 2021, noting they now anticipate retail sales will now grow between 10.5 per cent and 13.5 per cent to more than $4.44 trillion this year as the economy accelerates its pace of recovery.

This forecast far surpasses predictions made in February this year when the NRF projected at least 6.5 per cent growth.

“The economy and consumer spending have proven to be much more resilient than initially forecasted,” NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay said.

“The combination of vaccine distribution, fiscal stimulus and private-sector ingenuity have put millions of Americans back to work. While there are downside risks related to worker shortages, an overheating economy, tax increases and over-regulation, overall households are healthier, and consumers are demonstrating their ability and willingness to spend.

“The pandemic was a reminder how essential small, mid-size and large retailers are to the everyday lives of Americans in communities nationwide.”

Spotlight on the forecast data

  • NRF now forecasts that 2021 retail sales are estimated to total between $4.44 trillion to $4.56 trillion.
  • Non-store and online sales (included in the total figure) are expected to grow between 18 per cent and 23 per cent to a range of $1.09 trillion to $1.13 trillion as consumers continue to utilise ecommerce.
  • The updated figure compares with $4.02 trillion in total retail sales in 2020. Of that, $920 billion was from purchases made through non-store and online channels.

Past three month’s figures

The NRF’s revised prediction comes as monthly sales figures waver between small rises and minor falls.

After a strong rebound in March, April data from Census revealed a slight dip (1.3 per cent) on the month prior but year-over-year spending growth of 51.1 per cent with the NRF tipping the US economy could see its fastest growth in more than three decades.

In May, Census data indicated sales reduced by a further 1.3 per cent on April, but the NRF noted the data did not paint a full picture.

Instead, their figures revealed unadjusted May sales totalled $388.6 billion, the second-highest level of spending on record, outpaced only by $414.7 billion in December.

June saw sales again on the rise, according to the Census data, increasing 0.6 per cent on the month prior.

Meanwhile, the NRF noted June sales were up year-over-year across the board, led by increases at clothing, electronics and furniture stores, and also two-thirds of retail categories on a monthly basis.

June sales breakdown


According to the NRF’s data, June specifics from key retail sectors included:

  • Clothing and clothing accessory stores - up 2.6 per cent month-over-month seasonally adjusted and up 49.4 per cent unadjusted year-over-year.
  • Electronics and appliance stores - up 3.3 per cent month-over-month seasonally adjusted and up 36.5 per cent unadjusted year-over-year.
  • Furniture and home furnishings stores - down 3.6 per cent month-over-month seasonally adjusted but up 17.5 per cent unadjusted year-over-year.
  • Health and personal care stores - up 1.6 per cent month-over-month seasonally adjusted and up 13.5 per cent unadjusted year-over-year.
  • Online and other non-store sales - up 1.2 per cent month-over-month seasonally adjusted and up 12 per cent unadjusted year-over-year.
  • Sporting goods stores - down 1.7 per cent month-over-month seasonally adjusted but up 11 per cent unadjusted year-over-year.
  • General merchandise stores - up 1.9 per cent month-over-month seasonally adjusted and up 10.7 per cent unadjusted year-over-year.
  • Building materials and garden supply stores - down 1.6 per cent month-over-month seasonally adjusted but up 7 per cent unadjusted year-over-year.
  • Grocery and beverage stores - up 0.6 per cent month-over-month seasonally adjusted and up 3.7 per cent unadjusted year-over-year.

Back to class spending at record levels

Back to school is the next major spending event on the retail calendar, with the NRF predicting consumers will fork over record amounts this fall.

Their research indicates:

  • Total back-to-school spending is expected to reach a record $37.1 billion, up from $33.9 billion last year and an all-time high in the survey's history.
  • Families with children in elementary through high school plan to spend an average of $848.90 on school items ($59 more than last year).
  • College students and their families plan to spend an average of $1,200.32 on college or university items ($141 more than last year).
  • Over half ($80) of this increase is due to increased spending on electronics and dorm furnishings.
  • Total back-to-college spending is expected to reach a record $71 billion, up from $67.7 billion in 2020.

Ongoing trends

Looking to the future, McKinsey Research recently offered their insight into how Covid-19 continues to impact the US economy.

They note, personal savings in the United States spiked in April 2020 to 33.7 percent—the highest rate ever recorded, while two major consumer trends which emerged in 2020 seem to be sticking.

These include the phenomenon of ‘home nesting’, where people are using their savings to renovate or improve their home, and the other involves a decrease in consumer loyalty.

“Almost three in ten US households renovated their homes or added fitness equipment during the pandemic; the same percentage plan to treat themselves to more home improvements,” they explained.

Meanwhile their data indicates three quarters of all Americans changed their shopping habits in 2020, and 40 per cent of these changed brands, which was twice the rate of 2019.

“The implication is that, more than ever, companies can’t take their customers for granted. Loyalty must be earned time and again,” they said.

“In sum, American consumers are spending again and eager to spend more. But the pandemic has been a scarring experience, and they aren’t doing so with abandon.”

The takeaway for retail


McKinsey’s major takeaway for retail is that ecommerce isn’t the future, it is the present and a reality that is here to stay. But it comes with its own set of challenges.

“The big change in consumer behavior during the COVID-19 pandemic has been the shift to ecommerce and remote options,” McKinsey explained.

“In the United States, ecommerce grew more than three times as quickly from 2019 to 2020 as it had during the previous five years…”

As a result, their data indicates mass retailers’ online sales rose 93 per cent in 2020. Among apparel, fashion, and luxury retailers, online penetration rose to 26 per cent, from 16 per cent.

“These changes are sticking—mostly,” McKinsey goes on to note.

“People are still shopping online much more than they did before the pandemic but at lower levels than they did during its depths.”

While that’s good news for consumers, for retailers it presents a challenge, with McKinsey explaining ecommerce is often a lot less profitable than in-store shopping.

“…businesses will need to develop whole new capabilities (including data-driven marketing, distribution management, and sustainability) to create long-term value,” they state.

“Omnichannel isn’t just the future. It’s the present, so it needs to be integrated into strategy in a way it often isn’t.”

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