May flowers: Where the U.S. retail blooms are and are notMay flowers: Where the U.S. retail blooms are and are not
A sign is shown in the window of a retail store in San Francisco

By Dan Burns

(Reuters) – No denying May’s $73 billion rebound in U.S. retail sales was an eye-popper and is the latest fodder to fuel the red-hot “V” vs “U” debate about what kind of recovery to expect from the COVID-19 recession.

Even Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell, who has taken pains lately to caution everyone that this is likely to be a fitful and for many a painful recovery, called Tuesday’s retail sales report from the Commerce Department an encouraging sign.

But, to be clear, while the rebound was strong overall, sales remain 8% below where they were in February, and many corners of retail are miles shy of where they were just three months ago when coast-to-coast stay-at-home orders brought many businesses to a full standstill.

Green shoots in May?

Here is a look at some of the notable details from Tuesday’s report:


May’s sales boom owes a lot to Detroit. Sales in the automotive sector – led by car and truck dealerships – rose by more than $30 billion from April, accounting for more than 40% of the overall retail sales increase.

Auto sales were a big driver


With everyone spending more time at home, Americans also decided to spend more money on their homes. Sales at home and garden centers surged to a record high last month, and are one of just three major retail categories up from a year earlier, the others being grocery stores and online retailers.

A DIY boom in a pandemic?


The anecdotes about jigsaw puzzle shortages have been circulating for months, but May’s sales resurgence in the sporting goods, hobby, musical instruments and bookstore category shows this was no myth. Bicycles, home fitness gear and good, old books are also in high demand.

Bikes, books, puzzles and other distractions


Sales at hard-hit restaurants and bars shot up nearly 30% as states relaxed social-distancing rules, but that only brought the sector’s overall receipts back to where they were a decade ago.

Restaurants & bars still have a long way to go


Clothing retailers notched the largest percentage increase in May – a stunning 188%. Impressive until the low base is taken into account. Sales are still just a third of February’s level.

Clothing still faces a steep cliff

(Reporting by Dan Burns; editing by Jonathan Oatis)