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The state of decline in retail sales

Using new Census data to compare U.S. states

FRED recently added more new data from the Census Bureau: 11 categories of retail sales for U.S. states. A previous post looked at national declines in retail sales, and national data continue to show the pandemic’s damaging effects on this sector.

As with most economic measures, though, the effects aren’t equally distributed across the nation. So let’s use GeoFRED maps to examine individual state experiences—specifically, July 2020 sales compared with July 2019 sales for (1) electronics and appliance stores, (2) gas stations, and (3) clothing and clothing accessories stores.

The first map covers electronics and appliance stores. National data show a decline of 4.7% year over year, which would be even more concerning in normal times but is not the worst downturn we’ve observed during the pandemic. The map shows a lack of uniformity, with some strong decreases (California’s –14.2% at worst) and some strong increases (Montana’s +21.3% at best). For consumer durables like electronics and appliances, timing is important: In hard times, households postpone these purchases. When things improve, they catch up. The lack of uniformity here likely stems from the different phases of the pandemic across U.S. states.

The second map covers gas stations: National data show a decline of 16.2% year over year. Here, the effects are much more uniform across states, with a narrow range of –19.7% to –12.9%, except for Washington’s –6.7%. It’s hard to find substitutes for gasoline purchases, and all states experienced a similar drop in demand for travel and commuting.

The third map covers clothing and clothing accessories, where the story is similar to the one for gas stations. National data show a decline of 21.9%, and state numbers range from –26% to –12% (except for New Jersey’s –2.9% and Connecticut’s –5%).

For national accounting purposes, clothing isn’t considered a durable good, as electronics and appliances are. And that may be for the good reason that, as these map shows, clothing sales behave differently from those durable goods sales.

How these maps were created: A good starting point is the release table for monthly state retail sales. Click on a state series and then navigate below the graph to the related material, which includes a link to the GeoFRED map. (Or you could click on “View Map” on the graph and then “Edit Map”). Zoom-in or -out as you wish.

Suggested by Christian Zimmermann

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