Decline in retail sales eased in May, Mastercard data shows

Jonathan Roeder

American shoppers, all dressed up with nowhere to go, started spending at closer to normal levels again last month.

U.S. retail sales, including online and in-person transactions, fell 5.6% in May from a year ago, according to a new study from Mastercard SpendingPulse. That’s an improvement from the 14.1% drop it recorded the previous month. The credit-card company uses payments in its network and surveys to review spending levels worldwide.

Jay Han, whose wife owns Honey Fashion, rearranges merchandise in the store, Monday, June 8, 2020, in Brooklyn, after retail stores were allowed to reopen, but with restrictions, under the city's phase one reopening plan.

The report also shows e-commerce sales almost doubled last month amid widespread economic lockdown measures due to the coronavirus pandemic. Mastercard SpendingPulse estimates that online sales received $53 billion of incremental spending in the U.S. during April and May.

The data gives a more concrete sense of how the pandemic has affected consumer behavior and hints at a nascent recovery ahead of the government’s widely watched retail report due next week. The study also highlights the rare pockets of strength in consumer buying, including online sales and spending on home improvement and groceries.

Apart from ecommerce gains, “everything else has been incredibly unpredictable,” said Steve Sadove, a senior adviser for Mastercard. He noted there’s heightened demand for touchless services, “which could have tremendous impact on what stores actually look like and how they blend their online and brick-and-mortar footprints.”