Retail Channel $ Update – February Monthly & March Advance

In March, Commodities inflation vs last year rose from 0.3% in February to 0.6%. Although down from its peak, cumulative inflation still impacts consumer spending. The YOY sales increase for March is 36% below average for Relevant Retail and for all but 2 channels. Prices are now deflating in a number of channels but still high vs 21 which slows growth in the amount of product sold. There is still a long road to recovery, so we’ll continue to track the retail market with data from 2 reports provided by the Census Bureau and factor in a targeted CPI from US BLS data.

The Census Bureau Reports are the Monthly and the Advance Retail Sales Reports. Both are derived from sales data gathered from retailers across the U.S. and are published monthly at the same time. The Advance Report has a smaller sample size so it can be published quickly – about 2 weeks after month end. The Monthly Report includes data from all respondents, so it takes longer to compile the data – about 6 weeks. Although the sample size for the Advance report is smaller, the results over the years have proven it to be statistically accurate with the Monthly reports. The biggest difference is that the full sample in the Monthly report allows us to “drill” a little deeper into the retail channels.

We will begin with the February Monthly Report and then go to the March Advance Report. Our focus is comparing to last year but also 2021 & 2019. We’ll show both actual and the “real” change in sales as we factor inflation into the data.

Both reports include the following:

  • Total Retail, Restaurants, Auto, Gas Stations and Relevant Retail (removing Restaurants, Auto and Gas)
  • Individual Channel Data – This is more detailed in the Monthly reports, and we’ll focus on Pet Relevant Channels.

The data will be presented in detailed charts to facilitate visual comparison between groups/channels. The charts will show 11 separate measurements. To save space they will be displayed in a stacked bar format for the channel charts.

  • Current Month change – % & $ vs previous month
  • Current Month change – % & $ vs same month last year and vs 2021.
    • Current Month Real change vs last year and vs 2021 – % factoring in inflation
  • Current Ytd change – % & $ for this year vs last year, 2021 & 2019.
    • Current Ytd Real change % for this year vs last year and vs 2021 and 2019
  • Monthly & Ytd $ & CPIs for this year vs last year and vs 2021 which are targeted by channel will also be shown. (CPI Details are at the end of the report)

First the February Monthly. All but Relevant Retail were up from January and all but Gas Stations were up vs 23, 21 & 19. Considering inflation, Gas Stations had the only drop vs 23 or 21. There were 4 in Dec & Jan. Gas Stations are still really down vs 2019 but for the 4th straight month, Relevant Retail is “really” up vs all years. ($ are Not Seasonally Adjusted)

The February Monthly is $4.1B more than the Advance report. Restaurants: +$0.1B; Auto: +$1.9B; Gas Stations: +$0.4B; Relevant Retail: +$1.6B. Surprisingly, $ were up vs January for all but Relevant Retail. Actual sales for all but Gas Stations were positive in all measurements vs 23, 21 & 19. Gas prices fell but Gas Stations sales were down vs 23. There were only 2 “real” sales drops – both from Gas Stations. All measurements (actual & real) vs 23, 21 & 19 were positive for Auto, Restaurants, Total & Relevant Retail. Restaurants have the biggest increases vs 21 & 19 but Relevant Retail is still the top “real” performer vs 2019. However, only 54% of their growth is real.

Now, let’s see how some Key Pet Relevant channels did in February in the Stacked Bar Graph Format

Overall– 8 of 11 were up from January. vs Feb 23, 8 were actually and 9 “really” up. Vs Feb 21, All were up and 8 were real increases. Vs 2019, Off/Gift/Souv were actually & really down. All others were up in both measurements.

  • Building Material Stores – The pandemic focus on home has produced sales growth of 32.3% since 2019. Prices for the Bldg/Matl group have inflated 19.7% since 2021 which is having an impact. Both HomeCtr/Hdwe and Farm stores are only actually up vs 21 & 19. Deflation pushed Home Ctr/Hdwe really positive vs Feb 23 and they are again really up vs 19. Other real measurements vs 23 & 21 are negative for both and only 25% of the overall Building Materials group’s 19>24 lift was real. Avg 19>24 Growth: HomeCtr/Hdwe: 5.5%, Real: 1.3%; Farm: 7.2%, Real: 3.0%
  • Food & Drug – Both are truly essential. Except for the pandemic food binge buying, they tend to have smaller changes in $. The inflation situation has flipped as the Grocery rate is now 66% lower than Drug/Med products. Both are down from January in $. Drug Stores are positive in all other measurements and 67% of their 2019>24 growth is real. All actual $ are up for Supermarkets and inflation is slowing but their 24 real sales are still down vs 21. Only 14% of their 19>24 increase is real growth. Avg 19>24 Growth: Supermarkets: +5.7%, Real: +0.9%; Drug Stores: +4.9%, Real: +3.4%.
  • Sporting Goods Stores – They also benefited from the pandemic in that consumers turned to self-entertainment, especially sports & outdoor activities. Sales are up 1.5% from January and their only negative is real Ytd vs 21. Prices are still deflating, -1.8% vs 23. Deflation started in April 23 and is a big change from +1.1% in 22>23 and +7.1% in 21>22. The result is that 65.2% of their 49.4% lift since 2019 is real. Their Avg 19>24 Growth Rate is: +8.4%; Real: +5.7%.
  • Gen Mdse Stores – All were up vs January. Actual sales vs 21 & 19 were up for all. In fact, the only negatives came from Discount Department Stores. They were actually down Ytd vs 23 and really down Ytd vs 23 & 21. They are again really positive vs 19 but only 21% of their growth is real. The other channels average 47% in real growth. Avg 19>24 Growth: SupCtr/Club: 5.9%, Real: 2.7%; $/Value Strs: +6.8%, Real: +3.6%; Disc. Dept. Strs: +2.6%, Real: +0.6%
  • Office, Gift & Souvenir Stores – Actual sales are up slightly, +0.4% from January but they are negative in all actual measurements but vs 21. Their real sales numbers are all negative but vs February 21. This includes negatives vs 2019. Their recovery started late, and their slow progress has been stalled since June 23. Avg Growth Rate: -0.9%, Real: -2.8%
  • Internet/Mail Order – $ are down -4.7% from January but set a new monthly record of $100.3B. All measurements are positive, but their growth is only 68.2% of their average since 2019. However, 82.9% of their 121.9% growth since 2019 is real. Avg Growth: +17.3%, Real: +15.0%. As expected, they are still by far the growth leaders since 2019.
  • A/O Miscellaneous – Pet Stores are 22>24% of total $. In May 2020 they began their recovery which reached a record level of $100B for the first time in 2021. In 2022 their sales dipped in January, July, Sept>Nov, rose in December, fell in Jan>Feb 23, grew Mar>May, fell in Jun>Aug, rose in Sep>Nov, fell in Dec>Jan, then grew in Feb. All measurements vs 23, 21 & 19 are positive. They are in 2nd place, behind the Internet, in the % increase vs 19 but the leader vs 21. Also, 78% of their 73.8% growth since 2019 is real. Average 19>24 Growth: +11.7%, Real: +9.5%.

February was a big, positive surprise. It is usually the retail low point of the year but not in 24. Sales in 8 channels were up vs January and vs February 23. Prices are now deflating in a number of channels so 9 channels were really up vs 23. Cumulative inflation is still a factor. Sales increases are lower and 6 of 11 channels were really down Ytd vs 21 but slow improvement continues. The commodities CPI increased slightly in March. Let’s look for any impact on Retail $ales.

March sales vs February grew for all big groups – no surprise. Except for 2020, a Feb>Mar Total Retail lift has happened every year since 1992. However, the 10.1% lift is 27% below the average of 13.7%. All actual $ measurements are positive vs 23, 21 & 19 for all groups but Gas Stations vs 22 and Auto vs Mar 23 & 21. Only Restaurants have an above average lift vs March 23. Auto & Gas $ are down while Total & Relevant Retail are 36+% below average. Inflation is still a big factor. The rate for all commodities, the best pricing measure for Retail, grew from 0.3% to 0.6% and is 16.6% vs 21. There is some “real” bad news. In February only 1 measurement was “really” down vs 23 & 21 and it came from Gas Stations. In March, 7 were really down – 3 from Gas Stations. Relevant Retail’s real monthly sales vs last year have now been positive for 9 straight months, but after 4 straight months of all positives, their real sales vs March 21 are down.

Overall – Inflation Reality – For Total Retail, inflation grew and real sales vs March 21 turned negative. For Restaurants, inflation remains high, +4.1% but they are really positive vs 23 & 21. Gas prices rose and that group is still in turmoil. Auto prices are down but still up 18.6% vs 21 which has slowed actual & real sales. Prices are slightly deflating for Relevant Retail but their real sales are now down vs March 21, after 4 months of all positives. Their progress is slowing.

Total Retail – Since June 20, every month but April 23 has set a monthly sales record. In 2023 Sales were on a roller coaster. Up in Jul>Aug, down in Sept, up in Oct>Dec, down in Jan 24, surprisingly up in Feb and again in March. Inflation grew but is only 0.6%. YOY sales growth is still low. Sales are up 3.3% Ytd vs last year, but this is only 46% of their avg 19>24 growth. Real sales vs Mar 21 turned negative and only 41% of the 19>24 growth is real. YOY inflation in Total Retail has significantly slowed but we see its cumulative impact. Growth: 23>24: 3.3%; Avg 19>24: +7.2%, Real: +3.3%.

Restaurants – They were hit hard by the pandemic and didn’t begin recovery until March 2021. However, they have had strong growth since then, setting an all-time monthly record of $96B in December 23 and exceeding $1T for the 1st time. They have the biggest increases vs 23, 21 & 19 and all real sales are positive. Inflation slowed to 4.1% from 4.5% last month but is still +20.8% vs 21 and +25.8% vs 19. 39.5% of their 51.2% growth since 19 is real and they remain 3rd in performance behind Relevant & Total. Recovery started late but inflation started early. Growth: 6.6%; Avg 19>24:+8.6%, Real: +3.7%. They just account for 13.5% of Total Retail $, but their performance improves the overall retail numbers.

Auto (Motor Vehicle & Parts Dealers) – They actively worked to overcome the stay-at-home attitude with great deals and a lot of advertising. They finished 2020 up 1% vs 2019 and hit a record $1.48T in 2021 but much of it was due to skyrocketing inflation. In 22 sales got on a rollercoaster. Inflation started to drop mid-year, but it caused 4 down months in actual sales which are the only reported sales negatives by any big group in 21>22. This is bad but their Y/E real 2022 sales numbers were much worse, down -8.2% vs 2021 and -8.9% vs 2019. 2023 was a true rollercoaster but the $ set a new record, $1.595T. $ fell in Jan 24 but grew in Feb>Mar. However, actual & real $ vs Mar 23 & 21 are negative plus real Ytd vs 21. Prices vs 23 are -0.8%. Only 23% of 19>24 growth is real. Growth: 2.1%; Avg 19>24: +6.0%, Real: +1.5%.

Gas Stations – Gas Stations were also hit hard. If you stay home, you drive less and need less gas. They started recovery in March 2021 and inflation began. Sales got on a rollercoaster in 2022 but reached a record $583B. Inflation started to slow in August and prices slightly deflated in Dec & Feb 23, then strongly fell in Mar>Jul to -20.2%. In August they rose to -3.7%. In Sep they were +2.7% but began deflating to -4.2% in Feb. In Mar they are +1.0%. Pricing is a big factor in the $ drop vs 23 but real $ vs Mar 21 & Ytd vs 21 & 19 are also negative. Growth: -3.0%; Avg 19>24: +5.4%, Real: -1.0%. They show the cumulative impact of inflation and demonstrate how strong deflation can be both a positive and a negative.

Relevant Retail – Less Auto, Gas and Restaurants – They account for 60+% of Total Retail $ in a variety of channels, so they took many different paths through the pandemic. However, their only down month was April 2020, and they led the way in Total Retail’s recovery. Sales got on a roller coaster in 2022 but all months in 2022 set new records with December reaching a new all-time high, $481B, and an annual record of $4.81T. In 2023, sales continued on the roller coaster. A December lift set a new monthly record of $494.7B and annual record of $4.997T. Sales fell in Jan>Feb 24 but rose in March, which is normal. However, the 9.5% lift is 24% below the 92>23 avg and the YOY lift of 3.1% is down 36% from avg. Also, real sales vs Mar 21 turned negative after 4 straight months of all positives. However, 54% of their 44.2% 19>24 growth is real – #1 in performance. Growth: 3.8%; Avg 19>24: +7.6%, Real: +4.3%. This is where America shops. They finished 2023 and started up 2024 strong but in March their recovery appears to be slowing. This is concerning.

Inflation is still low, but the cumulative impact is still there. Sales increases are still small, which is very evident in March. It is also significant that the number of real drops vs 23 & 21 increased to 7 from 1 in February. Restaurants are still doing well, but the Auto group has now joined Gas Stations in turmoil. Although not as visible, the biggest concern is with Relevant Retail. Sales increases are markedly lower and real sales vs Mar 21 turned negative after 4 months of all positives. Consumers are still spending more $ and generally buying more product, but progress has definitely slowed.

Here’s a more detailed look at March by Key Channels in the Stacked Bar Graph Format

  • Relevant Retail: Growth: 3.8%; Avg: +7.6%, Real: +4.3%. All were up from Feb. Vs Mar 23: 5 were up, Real: 7. Vs Mar 21: 6 were up, Real: 4. Vs 19: All were actually up. Only Dept Stores & Furnishing stores were really down.
  • All Dept Stores – This group was struggling before the pandemic hit them hard. They began recovery in March 2020. Sales are up 11.8% from February. Their actual $ are only up Ytd vs 21 & 19. Their real numbers are only up vs Mar 23, +0.8%. They are even really down vs 2019. Growth: -1.4%; Avg 19>24: +0.4%, Real: -1.6%.
  • Club/SuprCtr/$- They fueled a big part of the recovery because they focus on value which has broad consumer appeal. $ales are +13.2% from February. In fact, both actual and real sales are positive in all measurements. However, only 44% of their 33.9% 19>24 lift is real – inflation’s impact. Note: Growth exceeds Avg. Growth: 6.1%; Avg: +6.0%, Real: +2.8%.
  • Grocery- These stores depend on frequent purchases, so except for the binge buying in 2020, their changes are usually less radical. Actual $ are +8.3% from February and up monthly and Ytd vs 22, 21 & 19. However, inflation hit them hard. Real $ are down vs 21 and only 14% of the growth since 2019 is real. Growth: 2.8%; Avg 19>24: +5.7%, Real: +0.9%.
  • Health/Drug Stores – Many stores are essential, but consumers visit less frequently than Grocery stores. $ are +5.4% from Feb. Actual $ are down vs Mar 23 and real $ are down vs Mar 23 & 21. Inflation has been low so 66% of their 27% growth from 2019 is real. Note: Their growth is now below the 19>24 avg. Growth: 3.6%; Avg 19>24: +4.9%, Real: +3.3%
  • Clothing and Accessories – Clothes initially mattered less when you stayed home. That changed in March 21 with strong growth through 2022. Sales are up 15.4% from February and positive in all comparisons, actual & real vs 22, 21 & 19 except real sales vs Mar 21. Plus, 70% of their 19>24 growth is real. Growth: 3.4%; Avg 19>24: +3.8%, Real:+2.7%
  • Home Furnishings – In mid-2020 consumers’ focus turned to their homes and furniture became a priority. Prices are now deflating but they were high in 2022. Sales are +10.2% from January but negative in all other measurements but actual Ytd sales vs 2019. They have sold less product in 2024 than 2019. Growth: -8.4%; Avg 19>24: +2.3%, Real: -0.5%
  • Electronic & Appliances – This channel has many problems. Sales fell in Apr>May of 2020 and didn’t reach 2019 levels until March 21. $ are up only 3.2% from February. This small lift caused actual $ vs Mar 23 & 21 to turn negative. Other measurements are positive. Note: Their growth again exceeds the average. Growth: 1.3%; Avg 19>24: +0.6%, Real: +3.3%.
  • Building Material, Farm & Garden & Hardware –They truly benefited from the consumers’ focus on home. In 2022 the lift slowed as inflation grew to double digits. Prices are still deflating, and sales are up 14.6% from February but they are only positive vs 2019. Prices may be deflating but they are still high, 18.8% above 21. Real sales are negative for all but Ytd vs 21 & 19. Also, just 24% of their 19>24 sales growth is real. Growth: -5.1%; Avg 19>24: +5.6%, Real: +1.5%.
  • Sporting Goods, Hobby and Book Stores – Consumers turned their attention to recreation and Sporting Goods stores sales took off. Book & Hobby Stores recovered more slowly. Actual sales are +14.4% from February but down for all but Ytd vs 2019. The only positive real sales measurements are Ytd vs 23 & 19. Their inflation rate has been lower than most groups so 73% of their 29.3% growth since 2019 is real. Growth: -1.5%; Avg 19>24: +5.3%, Real: +3.9%.
  • All Miscellaneous Stores – Pet Stores have been a key part of the strong and growing recovery of this group. They finished 2020 at +0.9% but sales took off in March 21 and have continued to grow. Sales are +10.9% vs February and are again positive in all measurements – both actual & real. They are still 2nd to NonStore outlets in the percentage increase vs 19 and vs 21. 73% of their 53.6% 19>24 growth is real. Growth: 4.6%; Avg 19>24: +9.0%, Real: 6.8%.
  • NonStore Retailers – 90% of their $ comes from Internet/Mail Order/TV. The pandemic accelerated online spending. They ended 2020 +21.4%. The growth continued in 2021 as sales exceeded $100B for the 1st time and they broke the $1 Trillion barrier. $ales are +6.4% from February. Their YOY growth fell to +5.6% in Mar 24, 44% below average, but they are positive in all measurements. 81% of their 106.5% 2019>24 growth is real. Growth: 8.7%; Avg: +15.6%, Real: +13.3%

Note: Almost without exception, online sales by brick ‘n mortar retailers are recorded with their regular store sales.

Recap – The Retail recovery from the pandemic was largely driven by Relevant Retail and by the end of 2021 it had become very widespread. In 2022, there was a new challenge, the worst inflation in 40 years. Overall, inflation has slowed considerably from its June 22 peak, which has helped the Retail Situation. As expected, Sales grew from February. However, the lift was below average for most channels. The YOY monthly increase is also slowing. The Relevant Retail lift vs Mar 23 was 36% below its average 4.9% increase and 6 of 11 channels actually had a decrease. Among the 5 with increases, only SupCtr/$ Stores had a double-digit lift over 23. Inflation is low and now slightly deflating in most channels. However, we are still seeing the impact of high cumulative inflation. Only a few channels are doing well. The slowing of the  YOY sales increase has become the biggest problem. In March, only SupCtr/Club/$ & Electronics had a Ytd lift above their 19>24 Avg, down from 3 in February, which was still bad. Relevant Retail is now really down Ytd vs 21, after 4 straight months of all positives. The recovery has definitely slowed.

Finally, here are the details and updated inflation rates for the CPIs used to calculate the impact of inflation on retail groups and channels. This includes special aggregate CPIs created with the instruction and guidance of personnel from the US BLS. I also researched data from the last Economic Census to review the share of sales by product category for the various channels to help in selecting what expenditures to include in specific aggregates. Of course, none of these specially created aggregates are 100% accurate but they are much closer than the overall CPI or available aggregates. The data also includes the CPI changes since 2021 to show cumulative inflation.

Monthly YOY CPI changes of 0.2% or more are highlighted. (Green = lower; Pink = higher)

I’m sure that this list raises some questions. Here are some answers to some of the more obvious ones.

  1. Why is the group for Non-store different from the Internet?
    1. Non-store is not all internet. It also includes Fuel Oil Dealers, the non-motor fuel Energy Commodity.
  2. Why is there no Food at home included in Non-store or Internet?
    1. Online Grocery purchasing is becoming popular but almost all is from companies whose major business is brick ‘n mortar. These online sales are recorded under their primary channel.
  3. 6 Channels have the same CPI aggregate but represent a variety of business types.
    1. They also have a wide range of product types. Rather than try to build aggregates of a multitude of small expenditure categories, it seemed better to eliminate the biggest, influential groups that they don’t sell. This method is not perfect, but it is certainly closer than any existing aggregate.
  4. Why are Grocery and Supermarkets only tied to the Grocery CPI?
    1. According to the Economic Census, 76% of their sales comes from Grocery products. Grocery Products are the driver. The balance of their sales comes from a collection of a multitude of categories.
  5. What about Drug/Health Stores only being tied to Medical Commodities.
    1. An answer similar to the one for Grocery/Supermarkets. However, in this case Medical Commodities account for over 80% of these stores’ total sales.
  6. Why do SuperCtrs/Clubs and $ Stores have the same CPI?
    1. While the Big Stores sell much more fresh groceries, Groceries account for ¼ of $ Store sales. Both Channels generally offer most of the same product categories, but the actual product mix is different.