The Retail WTF Charts of the Year, Powered by $1,400-Stimmies and Massive Price Increases

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by Wolf Richter, Wolf Street:

The government better not ever stop dousing consumers with free money.

The latest wave of stimmies, this time $1,400 a pop, began to wash over our dear consumers in March, and they went out and spent it on everything in sight, except at grocery stores, as they’re still trying to use up their three-year supply of pasta and toilet paper. A few weeks ago, when I reported on consumer spending that had dropped in February as the $600-stimmies from December-January had run out, I predicted: “Waiting for a $1,400-stimmie WTF spike in March.” And what a doozie we got today.

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Retail sales in March spiked by 9.8% from February to a huge record $619 billion, seasonally adjusted, according to the Census Bureau this morning. Because March last year was already part of the lockdown plunge, I will compare all sales over the next few months to the same period in 2019. And compared to March 2019, total retail sales spiked by 20.8% to form the epic WTF chart of the year:

Prices have been surging at new and used vehicle dealers – with a big impact, as we’ll see in a moment with another WTF chart of the year – at gas stations, building materials stores, and at many other retailers. None of the data here is adjusted for inflation.

So those are the dominant powers behind the spike in retail sales: Price increases, filling holes left behind by snowmageddon, and above all, the stimmies.

New & used auto dealers and parts stores: Sales spiked 15.1% in March from February, to a WTF record of $134 billion, seasonally adjusted, amid rampant price increases. Compared to March 2019, sales were up 31%. This is the largest category of retail sales, accounting for 21% of total retail sales.

Earlier this year, the largest dealer group in the US bragged about historic profit margins. Even the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that, despite its heroic efforts to repress price increases in its CPI via hedonic quality adjustments, used vehicle prices had surged nearly 10% in March compared to a year ago:

Ecommerce sites and other “non-store retailers”: Sales jumped 6% in March from February to a record $93 billion, seasonally adjusted. Compared to March 2019, sales spiked by 47%! This category includes ecommerce, mail-order operations, street stalls, vending machines, etc.

Food and Beverage Stores: Sales inched up 0.7% in March from February to $72 billion, having gone nowhere in 12 months, and were down 12% from the March 2020 spike in the era of pasta-and-toilet-paper hoarding.

Restaurants & Bars: Sales jumped 13.4% in March from February to $62 billion (seasonally adjusted), thereby pulling nearly even with March 2019. But sales were still down nearly 5% from February 2020, just before the lockdowns. Included are cafeterias, delis, fast-food joints, high-end restaurants, bars, and other “food services and drinking places.”

In many cities, the indoor dining bans have spawned a wonderful new movement to eating outside, weather permitting. In San Francisco, reportedly 1,250 of these “parklets” have sprung up, and entire blocks are closed to traffic at night, as restaurants that line the street have built partitions outside and set up tables, chairs, and heaters. They do a thriving business, and the entire atmosphere is wonderful, with so many people eating and enjoying themselves outside for all to see. Just make sure to dress for it.

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