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Shoppers Splurged In January As New Stimulus Checks Arrived

As it turns out, January was for shopping.

Retail spending soared 5.3% last month compared to December, much more than anticipated, as U.S. families began receiving new federal coronavirus relief checks.

People bought more across the board last month, the Commerce Department reported Wednesday: furniture, electronics, clothes, sports equipment, restaurant food, groceries.

In a replay of early fall, hard-hit department stores saw the biggest gains. Spending there jumped 23.5% compared to December, still below what it was before the pandemic hit, but inching closer.

Overall, most retail categories have surged past and beyond their pre-pandemic levels. Only five remain down compared to January of last year: clothing stores (-11.1%), gas stations (-7.8%), electronics and appliance stores (-3.5%), department stores (-3%) and of course restaurants and bars (-16.6%).

Retail sales — which include spending on household goods and clothing, gasoline and cars, food and drink — are a key factor for U.S. economic health. In late 2020, this measure had declined for three months straight. Wednesday's report also revised December data to show a slightly deeper decline of 1%.

Here's where people were spending in January, compared to December, according to the Commerce Department data:

  • Department stores: +23.5%
  • Electronics and appliances stores: +14.7%
  • Furniture and home furnishings: +12%
  • Online retailers: +11%
  • Sports, music and other hobby stores: +8%
  • Restaurants and bars: +6.9%
  • Big-box stores: +5.5%
  • Clothing and accessories stores: +5%
  • Home improvement and gardening stores: +4.6%
  • Gas stations: +4%
  • Grocery stores: +2.5%
  • Pharmacies and other health/personal care stores: +1.3%
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    Alina Selyukh is a business correspondent at NPR, where she follows the path of the retail and tech industries, tracking how America's biggest companies are influencing the way we spend our time, money, and energy.