US retail sales see biggest drop ever amid coronavirus crisis

US retail sales posted their sharpest drop on record last month as the coronavirus pandemic shuttered shops around the country, stark new data show.

Retail and foodservice businesses raked in a seasonally adjusted $483.1 billion in sales in March, an 8.7 percent plunge from February’s revised total, the US Department of Commerce revealed Wednesday.

That’s the biggest month-to-month decrease in the history of the feds’ monthly report, which started in 1992. The previous record of 3.9 percent was set in November 2008 amid the global financial crisis.

“The economy is literally in freefall with consumers unable to get out to the shops and malls in March and about the only retailers smiling are grocery stores with consumers stockpiling food for the coming economic apocalypse,” said Chris Rupkey, chief financial economist at MUFG Union Bank. “This report today breaks all modern-day records for the consumer who has dealt the economy a body blow from which it will be difficult to recover.”

Sales at food and beverage stores spiked more than 25 percent to about $82.1 billion in March as panic-shopping consumers stocked up on groceries and other staples, the federal data show. Pharmacies and “general merchandise” retailers such as department stores and warehouses also saw sales jump.

But that wasn’t enough to cancel out sharp drops at car dealerships, restaurants and clothing stores as the pandemic brought the US economy to a screeching halt. Clothing and accessories sales plunged more than 50 percent last month to about $11.1 billion, according to the feds. And gas station sales dropped about 17 percent as many Americans started working at home and oil prices fell.

The tumble came as lockdowns meant to stop the spread of the deadly coronavirus forced retailers large and small to shut down as their customers hunkered down at home. Those restrictions have also led to mass layoffs, with nearly 17 million Americans filing for unemployment benefits in just three weeks.

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