Jun 16, 2020 - Economy & Business

Retail sales soar 17.7% in May

A sign placed on the boardwalk states "MAINTAIN SOCIAL DISTANCE" on May 24, 2020 in Wildwood, New Jersey.
A sign on the reopened boardwalk in Wildwood, N.J. Photo: Mark Makela/Getty Images

U.S. retail sales rose 17.7% in May, rebounding from a revised 14.7% drop in April, the Commerce Department said on Tuesday.

Why it matters: The result — the biggest monthly jump in consumer spending ever — is a big upside surprise, much better than the 8% jump that economists expected. It's another sign, alongside May's hugely better-than-expected jobs report, that the worst could be over for the economic slump caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

By the numbers: Retail sales are still down 6.1% from the prior year. Most categories bounced back after taking blows in March and April, when businesses were forced to close. Still, for certain businesses, spending remains much lower than it was this time last year.

  • For example ... Sales at clothing stores jumped 188% from April, but are down over 63% from the same time last year.
  • But: Nonstore retailers — the category that's a proxy for e-commerce — saw sales rise 9% in May and sales in that category are up 31% from last year.
  • And spending at food & beverage stores (which includes grocery stores) rose 2% last month and is up 14.5% year-over-year.
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