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U.S. Retail Spending Declined The Most Since Historic Plunge In April

Shoppers walk through Macy's in New York on Black Friday last month. Retail sales declined 1.1% in November, according to the Commerce Department.
Kena Betancur
AFP via Getty Images
Shoppers walk through Macy's in New York on Black Friday last month. Retail sales declined 1.1% in November, according to the Commerce Department.

Updated at 11:11 a.m. ET

U.S. retail spending declined the most since a historic plunge in April as new coronavirus surges restricted outings to stores and restaurants.

Retail sales dipped 1.1% in November compared with a month earlier, the Commerce Department said Wednesday.

However, retail spending — excluding food service — was still up 7.1% when compared with a year earlier, in part thanks to record-setting Black Friday and Cyber Monday online shopping sprees.

Like for much of the year, clothing and department stores as well as restaurants and bars took the biggest hits last month again. All have struggled to recover from waves of shutdowns and closures, and sales are still down heavily compared with last year.

The Commerce Department also revisedOctober's data to show a decline of 0.1% instead of an increase of 0.3%.

For November, here's where the data showed people spending, compared with a month earlier:

  • Grocery stores: +1.9%
  • Home improvement and gardening stores: +1.1%
  • Online retailers: +0.2%
  • Sports, music and other hobby stores: -0.6%
  • Big-box stores: -1%
  • Furniture stores: -1.1%
  • Electronics stores: -3.5%
  • Restaurants and bars: -4%
  • Clothing and accessories stores: -6.8%
  • Department stores: -7.7%
  • U.S. shoppers are on track to spend more than $755 billion during the key end-of-the-year weeks — but many of the sales, in fact, began in October.

    Retailers marked a record-setting start to the holiday shopping season but also warned they didn't know how much they'd be affected by pushing their biggest sales to earlier in the year.

    After an unusual delay because of pandemic uncertainty, the National Retail Federation is now forecasting that retail sales will grow between 3.6% and 5.2% to their highest level ever during a holiday shopping season.

    The trade group says shoppers will spendon average $998 on gifts, food, decorations and other holiday items — yearning to feel special in a difficult year.

    Malls and food establishments, however, have been hammered by waves of shutdowns and restrictions as the U.S. has struggled to contain the pandemic. Spending at restaurants and bars is down 17.2% compared with last year.

    The National Restaurant Association says 110,000 restaurants, or 17% nationwide, have permanently closed during the pandemic after being in business for an average of 16 years.

    Many businesses — and families — have been anxiously watching U.S. lawmakers' protracted debate over extending pandemic aid. Several federal programs, including some unemployment benefits, are expiring at the end of December.

    The latest government reports have painted a troubling picture of U.S. economic recovery: The number of people filing new unemployment claims jumped sharply, while new hiring slowed more than expected.

    In retail, however, a surge in online shopping has led giants such as Amazon and Walmart to go on hiring sprees, especially for people to staff warehouses overflowing with orders. The Labor Department's data, adjusted for seasonal hiring patterns, showed a net loss of 35,000 retail jobs in November, but an increase of 145,000 jobs in transportation and warehousing.

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    Alina Selyukh is a business correspondent at NPR, where she follows the path of the retail and tech industries, tracking how America's biggest companies are influencing the way we spend our time, money, and energy.