It was in the month of January that the U.S. retail sales boosted by the most over the span of the last seven months, beating all estimates and suggesting fresh stimulus checks helped spur a rebound in household demand following a weak fourth quarter. The value of overall sales increased 5.3% from the prior month after a 1% decline in December, Commerce Department figures showed Wednesday. It was the first monthly gain since September and all major categories showed sharp advances.
Last month, consumer spending through non-store channels grew 29.0% over January 2020, according to a Digital Commerce 360 analysis of the Commerce Department’s advance monthly figures released Wednesday. Numbers exclude estimated fuel sales. That’s the highest-ever growth registered for the month of January and more than 10 percentage points higher than the runner-up of 18.0% in January 2000. It also is nearly 3.5 times higher than the 8.3% growth recorded in January 2020.
Non-store sales—which are mainly online but also include other sales such as orders through call centers, catalogs, door-to-door visits, and vending machines—don’t align perfectly with spending accounted for in the pure e-commerce figures that the agency releases quarterly.
January’s retail performance was fueled by continued gains in the online sector, although e-commerce’s impact was smaller than prior COVID-19 periods. Growth in the non-store channel accounted for more than half—50.6%—of all retail gains for the month.
As Jack Kleinhenz, chief economist at the National Retail Federation says, “We expected retail spending to ramp up in January thanks to the latest round of stimulus checks and better COVID trends, and it clearly did. There were none of the falloffs in spending that we often find post-holiday, and the increase was even better than expected. There is plenty of purchasing power available for most consumers.”
With confidence growing thanks to the availability of COVID-19 vaccines plus states and local governments beginning to remove restrictions on economic activity, Kleinhenz says he expects consumer spending to build on this momentum going forward.
“The strength and composition of retail sales (specifically the preference toward discretionary categories) is an encouraging signal that consumers’ aggressive saving patterns from 2020 are starting to ease—a development which, if continues, could unleash a torrent of pent-up demand in 2021,” says Carl Riccadonna and Yelena Shulyatyeva, Bloomberg economists.