4 Wild Retail Stats From the Latest Census Report

There were some surprises and some good news tucked into July's retail sales report.

Over the weekend, the U.S. Census released its latest report on retail sales for July. It showed a huge surge in home electronics purchases as well as a lot of spending devoted toward home improvement projects. In other words, perfect accompaniments for Americans who are stuck indoors during the summer.   

But beyond the surface-level data, there were some compelling trends to unpack with an eye toward the economic recovery and shopping habits. As lockdowns drag on in certain parts of the country and other regions begin their tenuous reopening, industry observers and business owners alike have been paying close attention to get a sense of how consumer sentiment is changing as well as where and how most money is being spent. 

Here are 4 of the more interesting data points from July’s report.

Retails sales in July 2020 were 2.7% higher than they were in July 2019

In spite of the pandemic, shopping levels have returned to the pre-pandemic levels. And while expectations had been higher for July—retail sales were expected to jump 2.3% from June 2020 and only rose 1.2%—the overall narrative of consumers continuing to return to the marketplace is a meaningful one. 

Now, to be clear, this isn’t a total picture of the economy. As Josh Barro at New York Magazine notes, “This doesn’t mean the economy has recovered fully — the retail sales report largely covers sales of goods, and services have been hit harder than goods in this economic crisis.” 

And so, while places like restaurants and gyms certainly don’t have nearly as rosy of a forecast, there is good news for retailers banking on consumer discretionary income to be spent.  

Total eCommerce penetration in the U.S. went from 17% to 22% in two months

It’s no surprise that online stores were, by far, the biggest winners in the latest eCommerce data from the Census Bureau. Amazon, for example, saw its year-over-year revenue between July 2019 and July 2020 rise 25% which, quite frankly, is crazy.

But the overall landscape for eCommerce is nothing to sneeze at. In fact, excluding purchases like fuel, cars, restaurant spending, and other purchases generally made in person, the total percent of money spent on retail items jumped from a full 5% over the course of the past two months. 

There is really no easy way to quantify just what a massive jump that is, but fortunately, our next stat help round out the picture.

Absolute US eCommerce sales rose 32% in three months

Thinking about what it means for eCommerce penetration to jump 5% in a few months may be best explained, as Benedict Evans does, by framing it in terms of how much digital growth has happened in such a short period of time. 

Simply put, eCommerce retailers conducted five years of growth over the course of the past quarter. That translates into not billions of dollars, but tens of billions of dollars since the last time people were wearing winter coats in New York.

Online sales rose 25.8% in July 2020 from July 2019

For a more measured way of considering where eCommerce is right now, not just as part of a huge move online during a pandemic, but relative to a similar point in a fiscal year, consider that online sales grew by nearly 26% from this July and last July. While apparel shopping was down 19.6% from last July, given the absence of the usual back-to-school boom, clothes sales were also up 5.7% from June of 2020. 

And though this data did bring some excitement, across Wall Street and beyond, retail observers note that the expiration of federal unemployment benefits will likely factor heavily into what next month’s numbers look like.

“Retail sales are starting the third quarter on a solid footing considering the nosedive we saw this spring, but we have to remember that there’s uncertainty about economic policy and that the resurgence of the virus is putting pressure on the fledgling recovery,” Jack Kleinhenz, NRF chief economist at the National Retail Federation explained. “While households are spending, they are anxious about their health and economic well-being, so they are being pragmatic."