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Pandemic Hits Spending Hard; 79% Dive In Clothing Sales Leads A Record Plunge


If you work in retail, April came in like a lion and went out pretty much the same way. It was disastrous for retail stores and restaurants - a record 16% plunge in business, according to numbers out this morning, almost double the very bad numbers we saw from March. NPR's Alina Selyukh is covering this story. Good morning.


INSKEEP: Walk us through the collapse here.

SELYUKH: Yeah, it's hard to overstate the devastation. I mean, we're talking virtually businesses everywhere feeling the pain. And I just want to say, why this matters so much is because this spending by people is what drives the economy. Two-thirds of U.S. economic activity depends on people going out and shopping and buying food.

INSKEEP: What businesses are feeling the most pain?

SELYUKH: Yeah, so I've been thinking about it in the context of a, quote-unquote, "normal year" last year. And we're seeing that people pretty much stopped buying clothes - hands down - almost entirely. That's why you're seeing some of the struggling chains like J.Crew and Neiman Marcus, maybe even J.C. Penney, looking at bankruptcy for relief. Then you look at...

INSKEEP: Why buy fancy clothes when nobody's going to see you or nobody's going to say anything but your caller on Zoom?

SELYUKH: You don't have anywhere to go. Exactly. And then you have electronics and furniture. And for a bit there in March, you saw a run on tech gear, laptops, batteries, office chairs and desks, and in April, that got wiped out. Restaurants and bars have lost almost half their business.


SELYUKH: And you can just keep going down the list like that - cars, music and book stores, gas stations, all those so-called nonessential businesses.

INSKEEP: Well, I got to tell you, it's so appalling, and I know that it's such a disaster for so many businesses that are completely closed. I'm actually a little surprised it's only a disastrous 16% plunge. I wouldn't have been surprised to hear a number that was even worse.

SELYUKH: Right. Well, you know, people are still buying things. They're getting gas. They're ordering food and drinks, just in a different way. And a couple of businesses are doing actually better. One of them is online shopping - not a surprise. People cooped at home, stocking up online on necessities but also things that just make them feel better - everything like spices and cookware and gym equipment and books. And I'm just naming things I've personally bought online.


SELYUKH: And then you've got a spurt of home improvement projects and gardening giving a bit of relief to home improvement stores, although that did slow down a bit in April. And then, finally, grocery stores - they're essential. People need food, medicines, home supplies. Companies like Walmart and Amazon's Whole Foods have even been hiring more workers. So they're having a pretty strong spring saleswise. And even there, I have to say, in April, we did start seeing a slowdown from those early weeks of, you know, panic-buying and hoarding.

INSKEEP: Well, now we're moving into a new situation in which some states are reopening. Retail stores have to reopen very carefully - social distancing rules.


INSKEEP: But they can open their doors. Does this mean the worst is over?

SELYUKH: The very worst? Perhaps. But we will see the impacts for a long time. Some of them are permanent closures. Some people might feel comfortable going back to public spaces, like stores and restaurants, but surveys suggest most people are going to need some time. Lots depend on testing and vaccinations and treatments. Then remember - we're almost at 15% unemployment. How much shopping will people be doing when they don't have an income?

And plus - this is a weird thing to bring up - but holiday shopping is usually now when stores are placing their orders for that all-critical season. And one survey recently asked clothing retailers about their biggest worries about that season, and more than a quarter said they worry that they simply won't survive by then.

INSKEEP: Wow. Alina, thanks.

SELYUKH: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Alina Selyukh. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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.