By Lenore Fedow
U.S. retail sales were up 18 percent month-over-month in May, according to data from the U.S. Department of Commerce.
New York—U.S. retail sales improved in May compared with April as coronavirus restrictions eased and businesses began to reopen.

Retail sales, including food sales, climbed 18 percent month-over-month in May to $485.5 billion, according to data released by the U.S. Department of Commerce Tuesday morning.

The results follow a 15 percent drop in April and an 8 percent drop in March, according to revised statistics.

The results surpassed analyst estimates of an 8 percent increase and marked the highest month-over-month jump in U.S. retail sales ever.

The May results are less rosy when compared year-over-year, as they are down 6 percent from May 2019.

In an interview with CNBC’s Squawk Box Tuesday morning, National Retail Federation CEO Matthew Shay said the sales report “is very encouraging news.”

“These sales numbers do not reflect the same strength we had going into the pandemic, but they certainly reflect the trajectory we need coming out of it,” he said.

Stimulus money and supplemental unemployment checks coupled with “pent-up demand” drove consumer spending, NRF Chief Economist Jack Kleinhenz said in a press release.

He noted, however, that month-over-month comparisons between April and May need to be viewed in context because most nonessential businesses were shut down for all of April.

He said the results may be “questionable” as many retailers were closed and unable to respond to the monthly survey of sales data.

“Spending has improved considerably but it’s still far below where it was a year ago, and while the freefall in consumer confidence is over, unemployment remains high and confidence is still at recession levels,” he said.

Two important factors to monitor, he said, are the trajectory of unemployment and the direction of the virus.

Kleinhenz said a turnaround may be ahead in the third quarter, but a second wave of COVID-19 could spook consumers.

The NRF also calculates monthly retail sales, narrowing in on core retail and excluding auto sales, gas stations, and restaurants.

Its calculations show May sales were up 11 percent seasonally adjusted from April and up nearly 2 percent unadjusted year-over-year.

Looking at the commerce department’s data by category, clothing and accessories stores saw the strongest sales gains in May, up 188 percent month-over-month.

Furniture and sporting goods, and hobby, musical instrument and book stores followed, both up 90 percent.

The year-over-year gains from retailers that remained open, like grocery and drug stores, as well as online sales were offset by declines in other categories, said NRF.

Though increased foot traffic shows consumers are returning to shop, Kleinhenz said expects “to remain on a roller coaster for a while” and said a full recovery is “still a long way off.”

At his semiannual monetary policy report before Congress, Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell echoed a similar sentiment and added there was “significant uncertainty” surrounding the pace of economic recovery.

“Much of that economic uncertainty comes from uncertainty about the path of the disease and the effects of measures to contain it. Until the public is confident that the disease is contained, a full recovery is unlikely,” he said.

Powell pointed to small businesses as being especially at risk.

“If a small or medium-sized business becomes insolvent because the economy recovers too slowly, we lose more than just that business,” he said. “These businesses are the heart of our economy and often embody the work of generations.”

The Federal Reserve’s Main Street lending program kicked off Monday, which supports lending to small and mid-sized businesses.

Small to mid-sized businesses are defined as those with 15,000 employees or fewer or those with business revenues of $5 billion or less.

Powell said the Fed will do what it can to help the country’s recovery, but did not outline any specific policies.

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