Diverse tales by sectors
The FRED graph above shows retail sales for the last year and a half. Of course, the pandemic has had a huge impact, with a severe drop and a quick recovery. But the retail sector is large and diverse. So let’s look at various layers of it.
This graph is one of the strangest looking ones we’ve ever shown on this blog. And it tells very different stories. Let’s go through them one by one. (Hover over the legend in the graph to better see the respective lines.)
Grocery store sales actually surged with the pandemic. This is likely linked to the substitution from eating out to eating at home, which we discussed earlier on this blog.
Alcohol sales increased as well, as discussed in another post.
Pharmacies and drug stores are also doing well, likely due to a higher demand for prevention goods.
Men’s clothing has been a disaster, bottoming out in April 2020 at 12% of its January 2020 sales (after adjusting for seasonal variations).
Sporting goods sales fell by half but are now higher than before. Whether this rise was caused by simply catching up on postponed sales remains to be seen.
Warehouse clubs and superstores did well initially and are now back to normal.
Online and mail-order shopping… It’s no surprise this area is doing well, but it hasn’t been exploding as much as some may think.
The sectors we highlighted here are special in some ways, but there’s much more to explore from the Monthly Retail Sales release table.
How these graphs were created: For both graphs, start from the release table. For the first graph, simply click on the retail sales excluding food services and restrict the sample to 2019-01-01 to 2020-06-01. For the second graph, check the relevant series, click on “Add to Graph”; from the “Edit Graph” panel, change units to 100 for 2020-01-01, click “Apply to all,” and restrict the sample period to 2019-01-01 to 2020-06-01.
Suggested by Christian Zimmermann.
March's "last call for alcohol" boosted demand but only nudged prices
As U.S. cities and states started locking down in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, retail alcohol sales spiked. And they did so despite various additional restrictions for retailers and their customers.
Clearly, consumers were at least in part shifting from consumption in restaurants and bars to consumption at home. (The FRED Blog previously reported a similarly strong substitution from meals in restaurants to meals at home.) So, given this spike in retail purchases, what happened to prices?
If demand shoots up like this, market forces should increase prices as well. And prices paid by consumers did rise, but only moderately, as shown by the consumer price index (CPI). This moderate increase is even more surprising given the much larger increase in prices paid by retailers, as shown by the producer price index (PPI). That is, the data suggest retailers did not pass the full increase in costs on to their customers.
Why would retailers reduce their profit margins despite such a boost in demand? Price gouging in times of distress can damage a business’s reputation and is even illegal in some U.S. states. The demand shock may also have been perceived as temporary, so retailers may have been willing to forgo a large amount of quick profit to reinforce better long-term prospects with their regular customers.
How this graph was created: Search for and select the “retail sales beer” series. From the “Edit Graph” panel, use the “Add Line” tab to search for and select “PPI beer.” Repeat with “CPI beverages.” Choose units “Index (scale value to 100 for chosen date)” for 2020-02-01 and select “Apply to all.” Finally, limit the graph to the past 10 years.
Suggested by Christian Zimmermann.
View on FRED, series used in this post: