Retail isn’t back just yet.
Although April retail and food service sales rose 51.2 percent from a year ago when the pandemic lockdown had shoppers huddled at home, the comparison with March was much less favorable.
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The seasonally adjusted figure — which compares April with March and gives a sense of current momentum in the market — was flat. That’s a significantly weaker turn in sales than the 0.8 percent gain economists projected and far below the 10.7 percent jump the industry saw between March and February.
Some of the start and stop could have been driven by consumer spending that was backed by government stimulus dollars — trillions of which will cycle through the economy over the next year or two and could stoke inflation.
Apparel and accessories specialty stores saw sales slide 5.1 percent from March, although they were up 727 percent from a year ago, when mall closures hobbled the sector.
Department stores were down 1.9 percent in the monthly reading but up 72.5 percent year-over-year.
Nonstore retailers — mostly e-commerce players — give a similar, if less drastic reading, down 0.6 percent month to month and up 14.5 percent year to year.
The monthly figures are a snapshot of a very odd moment in time, when many Americans were freed by vaccines to venture out more, but still not settled into new routines by the rapidly changing conditions.
Many merchants, though, have signaled that the first quarter ended up being stronger than they initially anticipated and now they are moving into a new phase as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said people who are fully vaccinated can forgo masks in many situations.
More retailers will help to paint a clearer picture in the market next week as they release first-quarter results.
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