American shoppers shrug off Delta wave as retail sales trounce expectations, rising to $625 billion in September

American shoppers shrug off Delta wave as retail sales trounce expectations, rising to $625 billion in September
Sarah Halzack/The Washington Post via Getty Images
  • Spending at US retailers rose 0.7% in September to $625 billion, the Census Bureau said Friday.
  • The jump trounced the median economist estimate of a 0.2% decline.

Spending at US retailers and restaurants unexpectedly bounced up in September as the Delta wave hit its peak and started to ease.

Retail sales rose 0.7% last month to $625 billion, the Census Bureau said Friday morning. That exceeded the median estimate of a 0.2% decline from economists surveyed by Bloomberg.

It also marks a continuation from the 0.9% jump seen in August. That month's count was revised to $621 billion in sales from the initial estimate of $619 billion.

While sales growth has plateaued since a spring spike, spending remains healthily above the trend seen before the pandemic. Much of the boost was powered by the $5 trillion in stimulus passed by President Donald Trump and President Joe Biden since the crisis began. Consumer spending typically counts for 70% of economic activity, meaning it's a key driver of the economic revival after months-long lockdowns and lingering restrictions. The latest print suggests American spending is still reliably pushing the recovery forward.

Spending rose the most at sports goods and hobby stores, with the sector seeing a 3.7% jump in sales. The merchandise and gas-station sectors followed with 2% and 1.8% gains, respectively.


Other businesses fared worse. Health and personal care stores saw spending slide 1.4% last month, the most of any category. Electronics and appliance stores followed with a 0.9% slide in sales.

The first glimpse of post-Delta spending

The US is far from putting the pandemic behind it, but the latest trends are encouraging. Daily case counts have been falling since mid-September and now sit at the lowest seven-day average since early August. The steady decline suggests the country can turn back to reopening, especially as booster shots are rolled out.

A return to the low case counts seen through summer would likely drive spending even higher. The path of the recovery has hinged on the pandemic since it began. Soaring case counts tend to knock sales, while low case counts typically drive more in-person spending, particularly at businesses hit the hardest by lockdowns.

The Friday report also signals Americans are better suited to dealing with higher case counts than earlier in the crisis. Spending at nonstore retailers - which include e-commerce websites and pop-up stores - rose another 0.6% in September after surging 5.7% in August. The gains suggest Americans are increasingly shifting their spending online, a trend that could aid the economy in case another COVID wave emerges.

But where retail sales handily beat forecasts, other corners of the economy are flashing warning signs. Data out last week revealed the labor market's recovery is making sluggish progress despite 7.7 million Americans still unemployed. The country added just 194,000 nonfarm payrolls in September, badly missing the median estimate of a 500,000-payroll gain. The disappointing print followed a similarly bleak slowdown in August, and marked the weakest month o of job creation since December 2020.


Inflation also risks throwing the recovery off its tracks. Prices rose more than expected in September, with the Consumer Price Index bouncing 0.4%. The print also shows a rebound from inflation seen in August, signaling decade-high price growth won't be so easy for the US to shake off.

Soaring energy costs drove much of the increase, with gasoline and utility gas prices surging last month. The report came as the global energy crunch started to emerge. With experts warning that the energy shortage has no quick fix, the category could keep inflation at worrying levels into 2022.