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Retail Sales Bouncing Back, But Fashion Still on the Decline

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.

“We are encouraged by another positive retail sales number for October—the sixth consecutive positive monthly gain—as early holiday shopping provided a strong boost to the data,” NRF president and CEO Matthew Shay said. “Overall, retail sales were up 10.6 percent in October 2020 versus October 2019, and for the first 10 months of this year, retail sales were up 6.4 percent versus the first 10 months of 2019.

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“Consumers have proven their resilience and willingness to spend as we head into the heart of the holiday season and retailers continue to demonstrate their commitment and ability to ensure safe shopping environments for their customers and their associates, with deep discounts, robust inventory and great experiences whether in store or online,” Shay said.

According to NRF chief economist Jack Kleinhenz, “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. 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, while Walmart earnings topped expectations on Tuesday, with apparel performing well for the mass merchant.