March brought a record sales plunge as the coronavirus outbreak closed stores. A long shutdown could leave lasting changes in the shopping landscape.
Retail sales plunged in March, offering a grim snapshot of the coronavirus outbreak’s effect on consumer spending, as businesses shuttered from coast to coast and wary shoppers restricted their spending.
Total sales, which include retail purchases in stores and online as well as money spent at bars and restaurants, fell 8.7 percent from the previous month, the Commerce Department said Wednesday. The decline was by far the largest in the nearly three decades the government has tracked the data.
Even that bleak figure doesn’t capture the full impact of the sudden economic freeze on the retail industry. Most states didn’t shut down nonessential businesses until late March or early April, meaning data for the current month could be worse still.
“It was a pretty catastrophic drop-off in that back half of the month,” said Sucharita Kodali, a retail analyst at Forrester Research. She said April “may be one of the worst months ever.”
The resulting job losses continue to mount. Best Buy, which has 125,000 employees over all, said Wednesday that it would furlough 51,000 hourly store workers beginning Sunday, including nearly all of its part-time staff.
And in the months ahead, the question is how quickly spending will bounce back once the economy reopens, and how many businesses will survive until then.
People who lose jobs won’t quickly resume spending once businesses reopen. And those willing to spend may be reluctant to congregate in malls, restaurants and other businesses that rely on face-to-face contact.
Michelle Cordeiro Grant, chief executive and founder of Lively, a lingerie brand acquired by Wacoal last year, said it wasn’t clear how customers would want to shop and “what the new culture of shopping in physical retail will be.”
“Do they want to have a different type of fitting-room experience?” she mused. “Do they want our associates to wear masks and to be offered a mask? What is the try-on situation?”
When demand does rebound, it might come too late for some retailers, many of which were struggling even before the pandemic because of changes in mall traffic and a long-term shift to online sales.
The disruptions from the pandemic may ultimately hand more power to retailers able to continue operating stores during the crisis.
“It’s only going to cause a shakeout of a lot of retailers, and I think long term it just means that some of these big guys get less competition,” Ms. Kodali said. “The less competition they have, the worse they can treat everybody, whether it’s a supplier, a customer or an employee.”
Economists often distinguish demand that is deferred because of a crisis from demand that is destroyed. Retail probably has some of each. Someone who needs a new dishwasher might put off the purchase but will probably buy one eventually. But an office worker who puts off a springtime wardrobe refresh might just skip a year, meaning those sales are simply lost.
“Pent-up demand is what drives recoveries, and the good news there is we will come out of this with some degree of pent-up demand,” said Ellen Zentner, chief U.S. economist for Morgan Stanley. She added, however, that there are “a lot of caveats.”
Apparel retailers, in particular, seem to be preparing for a substantial amount of destroyed demand. Deborah Weinswig, founder of Coresight Research, an advisory and research firm that specializes in retail and technology, said she had spoken with retailers who were preparing for holiday sales to be 40 percent lower than last year.
“This crisis will absolutely set a new baseline for what component of the fleet we want to keep,” Katrina O’Connell, Gap’s chief financial officer, said last week on a conference call with analysts and investors.
Clothing stores were especially hard hit in last month’s plunge, with sales falling by more than half. Spending on cars and car parts fell more than 25 percent in March, seasonally adjusted. Sales at gas stations, pushed down by low oil prices as well as reduced commuting, fell 17 percent. The exceptions were grocery stores, pharmacies and other sellers of essential items, which had a surge of demand as consumers stocked up.
Previously, the largest one-month drop in retail sales came in the fall of 2008, when the financial crisis led spending to plunge nearly 4 percent for two straight months. Sales ended up falling more than 12 percent before they began to recover. But as bad as that downturn was, sales never ground to a halt the way they have in recent weeks, said Jack Kleinhenz, chief economist for the National Retail Federation.
“It was a very severe contraction, but the gears of the economy were still working,” he said.
The rebound this time will probably look different as well, Mr. Kleinhenz said. After the last recession, it took a while for consumers to feel that their jobs were secure and that they could resume spending. Now there will be the added hurdle of assuring shoppers of their physical safety.
“The fear can be as damaging to the economy as the disease itself,” he said.
What happens to retail matters to the broader economy. The sector accounts for more than one in 10 U.S. jobs; only health care employs more. Its stores generate billions of dollars in rent for commercial landlords, ad sales for local media outlets, and sales-tax receipts for state and local governments.
If retailers survive and can quickly reopen and rehire workers, the eventual economic recovery could be relatively swift. But the failure of a large share of businesses would lead to prolonged unemployment and a much slower rebound.
Economic policymakers in Washington have been trying to avoid that kind of cascade of business failures. The $2 trillion emergency package passed by Congress and programs announced by the Federal Reserve include government-backed loans and grants to keep businesses afloat.
Those initiatives have gotten off to a rocky start, however, with many businesses reporting difficulty applying for loans.
“They need lifeboats, and the lifeboats aren’t getting out there fast enough,” said Diane Swonk, chief economist at Grant Thornton. “This is a time when speed matters more than bureaucracy.”
John Horrocks closed BlackBird Frame & Art, a custom framing business in Asheville, N.C., because of county orders on March 26 and anticipates it will remain closed through May. Mr. Horrocks, who owns the shop with his wife, is working with a local bank to secure a loan through the federal Paycheck Protection Program, which would help pay the staff until the business reopens.
Mr. Horrocks, 65, said that he expected to make payroll through May “without a problem,” but that “beyond that, it gets very, very difficult.”
A recent survey by a team of academic economists found that two-thirds of small-business owners said they could carry on if the crisis lasted a month, but only a third said they would survive if the disruption dragged on for four months.
“There’s no question that if it goes on for four to six months, it will be catastrophic,” said Edward Glaeser, a Harvard economist who was one of the study’s authors. “For many businesses, almost assuredly the answer will be closure.”
The steep sales drop underscores the huge role that physical stores continue to play within retailing. Even as online businesses at major apparel chains and department stores have gained ground in recent years, they can’t make up for the shuttering of malls and stores.
“We’re going to come out of this having accelerated some of the trends that were already in place,” Ms. Zentner of Morgan Stanley said. “Internet taking share from brick and mortar, that’s going to be accelerated.”
Some chains have recently rolled out contact-free curbside pickup for products. But in the long run, retailers want customers to walk around stores and talk with staff members so that shoppers take “a second bite of the apple” as they browse, said Craig Johnson, president of Customer Growth Partners, a retail consulting firm.
In a sign of the industry’s upheaval, J.C. Penney, which has more than 800 stores, did not make a $12 million interest payment due Wednesday and has 30 days before it is considered in default. A company representative said it was a “strategic decision” to forgo the payment after discussions with lenders since last year to strengthen the chain’s financial position. That has become more important with the closing of its stores, the representative said.
For many of the nation’s nearly 16 million retail workers, the standstill has meant a loss of their livelihood, often overnight.
When Mia Lupo showed up to work at Bloomingdale’s in Norwalk, Conn., on March 16, it was clear that nothing was normal. The few customers were mostly making returns or buying sweatpants to prepare for working from home. Workers were worried about their jobs, but also about their safety.
“None of us had any idea what was going on,” Ms. Lupo, 27, said. “We’re just like panicking because we’re all hourly-wage workers. We need the money, but we also don’t want to get sick and we don’t want our families to get sick.”
The next day, Bloomingdale’s parent company, Macy’s, announced it was closing its stores — news that Ms. Lupo learned on Twitter — and it later furloughed nearly all its workers. She is now awaiting her first unemployment payment.
By Sapna Maheshwari and