February Retail Sales Show Strong Year-Over-Year Growth as Vaccine and Stimulus Provide a Boost

"February's numbers are a minor speed bump on the road to post-pandemic recovery."

NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay

WASHINGTON – Retail sales gained considerable year-over-year traction in February – despite a monthly slowdown from unusually high numbers in January – as increased COVID-19 vaccination, government stimulus and reduced restrictions on businesses continued to impact the pace of spending, the National Retail Federation said today.

“February’s retail sales numbers are a minor speed bump on the road to post-pandemic recovery and are not a reflection of consumers’ willingness and ability to spend and drive the economy,”
NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay said. "A number of factors contributed to these results, including major snowstorms in the northeast and unprecedented ice storms in the south, but they do not diminish the stimulus-related growth we saw in January or what we expect to see as additional stimulus relief hits consumer bank accounts in the weeks ahead. Looking forward to the spring and with consumer confidence at its highest level since last March, we remain optimistic that retail will help facilitate a surge in spending, job growth and capital investment in the second half of the year as more Americans are vaccinated and local economies reopen nationwide.”

“After January’s strong showing, we expected some payback in the form of lower figures in February by comparison,” NRF Chief Economist Jack Kleinhenz said. “Despite that, it’s hard to see this as a setback when you consider how large the year-over-year gains are and that sales are well above pre-pandemic levels. February had winter storms that impacted consumers’ ability to get out and shop, and the IRS’ delay in when it started accepting tax returns pushed back the release of refunds. But increased vaccinations and reductions in restrictions allowed more people to venture out and government stimulus gave them more money to spend. Overall, February’s results confirm that consumers are willing to spend as the virus situation improves and continued government stimulus further strengthens the economic backdrop. With another round of stimulus checks being mailed right now, we expect another large boost in consumer spending over the next few months.”

The U.S. Census Bureau today said overall retail sales in February were down 3 percent seasonally adjusted from January but up 6.3 percent year-over-year. That compares with a monthly increase of 7.6 percent and a yearly gain of 9.5 percent in January. Despite occasional month-over-month declines, sales have grown year-over-year every month since June, according to Census data.

NRF’s calculation of retail sales – which excludes automobile dealers, gasoline stations and restaurants to focus on core retail – showed February was down 3.4 percent seasonally adjusted from January but up 7.1 percent unadjusted year-over-year. That compared with an increase of 7.7 percent month-over-month and an increase of 12.7 percent year-over-year in January. NRF’s numbers were up 8.9 percent unadjusted year-over-year on a three-month moving average.

February’s gains come as NRF is forecasting that 2021 retail sales will increase between 6.5 percent and 8.2 percent over 2020, for a total between $4.33 trillion and $4.4 trillion. Retail sales during 2020 increased 6.6 percent despite the pandemic, beating the previous record growth rate of 6.3 percent in 2004.

February retail sales fell in every category except groceries, which were unchanged, on a month-over-month basis. But sales were up in two-thirds of categories on a year-over-year basis, which provides a better indicator of long-term trends and the state of the economy. Specifics from key retail sectors include:

  • Online and other non-store sales were down 5.4 percent month-over-month seasonally adjusted but up 23.5 percent unadjusted year-over-year.
  • Building materials and garden supply stores were down 3 percent month-over-month seasonally adjusted but up 11.4 percent unadjusted year-over-year.
  • Sporting goods stores were down 7.5 percent month-over-month seasonally adjusted but up 11 percent unadjusted year-over-year.
  • Grocery and beverage stores were unchanged month-over-month seasonally adjusted but up 7.2 percent unadjusted year-over-year.
  • Furniture and home furnishings stores were down 3.8 percent month-over-month seasonally adjusted but up 5.1 percent unadjusted year-over-year.
  • Health and personal care stores were down 1.3 percent month-over-month seasonally adjusted but up 2.4 percent unadjusted year-over-year.
  • General merchandise stores were down 5.4 percent month-over-month seasonally adjusted but unchanged unadjusted year-over-year.
  • Electronics and appliance stores were down 1.9 percent month-over-month seasonally adjusted and down 6.7 percent unadjusted year-over-year.
  • Clothing and clothing accessory stores were down 2.8 percent month-over-month seasonally adjusted and down 14.9 percent unadjusted year-over-year.

About NRF
The National Retail Federation, the world’s largest retail trade association, passionately advocates for the people, brands, policies and ideas that help retail thrive. From its headquarters in Washington, D.C., NRF empowers the industry that powers the economy. Retail is the nation’s largest private-sector employer, contributing $3.9 trillion to annual GDP and supporting one in four U.S. jobs – 52 million working Americans. For over a century, NRF has been a voice for every retailer and every retail job, educating, inspiring and communicating the powerful impact retail has on local communities and global economies.