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The Economy Under COVID-19: Notes From the Trenches - May 22, 2020

Alex Carrick
The Economy Under COVID-19: Notes From the Trenches - May 22, 2020

There are currently two crises underway simultaneously. The advance of the novel coronavirus is taking a terrible toll in terms of physical and emotional well-being. At the same time, job losses resulting from ‘social distancing’ are sending the economy into a tailspin. To fight on both fronts, governments are advancing rescue packages of never-seen-before dimensions. Every day, the tremendous number of factors in play reconfigure in a new way. These ‘from the trenches’ notes attempt to shed some light along a murky pathway.

  • U.S. total retail sales turned in a shockingly bad performance in April. They were -15.1% month to month and -17.8% year over year. Among sub-categories, though, something happened that has been in the works for a while, but was remarkable to observe, nonetheless. ‘Nonstore retail sales’ (i.e., purchases made over the Internet and by way of e-auctions), for the first time in history, took over number one spot for share of total retail, at 21.1%. Second place went to ‘food and beverage stores’, 19.1%. Dropping to third, versus its usual frontrunner status, was the shopkeeper category, ‘motor vehicle and parts dealers’, 18.4%.
  • Also, April’s grocery store sales were -13.1% month to month, after being +26.9% in March. A significant number of shoppers in March engaged in frenzied stockpiling. With the economy headed into a freeze, they were already seeing and anticipating further shortages – never mind that it was a self-fulfilling prophecy. Single seeds of hoarding can quickly grow to become pernicious weed patches of off-the-grid accumulations. April’s m/m decline in grocery store sales, though, suggests a dialed down urgency to build and maintain a home-inventory security blanket.
  • Anchor tenants of enclosed malls are going the way of the dodo bird. It was bad enough when they were being outmaneuvered by e-commerce and off-price retailers. Now the health crisis has struck, emptying department stores of the few customers who were remaining loyal. Bon-Ton is long gone. Macy’s has shuttered many of its locations. Sears has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. And J.C. Penney has moved to the brink of extinction. Penney’s is hoping for a bankruptcy restructuring that will enable it to rise from the ashes. Many retail analysts are skeptical.
  • Some dry cleaners have been open, with reduced hours, over the past two months. Mine hasn’t. Just before lockdown, I took in some laundry, which I couldn’t retrieve in time. The other day, I received a letter which read, “If you ever want to see your shirts again, bring cash or a credit card to the corner of Birch and Elm.” Inside the envelope were a half dozen buttons. I thought it was a cute marketing ploy. I’d never really imagined my shirts were being held for ransom, nor that they were being tortured. A fellow I know, who frequents the same establishment, has contacted me to say he’s also received a message. He’s more confrontational, though, and thinks we should get the police involved. Admittedly, his version of the note is more worrisome. There’s a P.S. that reads, “If you fail to act now, next time it’ll be the collars.”

Read the previous article here: The Economy Under COVID-19: Notes from the Trenches – May 21, 2020.


Alex Carrick is Chief Economist for ConstructConnect. He has delivered presentations throughout North America on the U.S., Canadian and world construction outlooks. Mr. Carrick has been with the company since 1985. Links to his numerous articles are featured on Twitter @ConstructConnx, which has 50,000 followers.

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