Despite the spread of the coronavirus in the U.S., nonstore sales remained steady in February. Total retail sales increased significantly by 7.2% year over year, according to a Digital Commerce 360 analysis of U.S. Department of Commerce data.

Although the coronavirus concerns began ramping up in the United States last month, retail spending didn’t appear to take an immediate hit. U.S. nonstore retail sales increased 8.2% year over year in February, according to a Digital Commerce 360 analysis of U.S. Department of Commerce advance monthly figures released Tuesday. Numbers exclude estimated fuel sales.

This marked a deceleration from 10.7% growth for the month in 2019 but is a higher year-over-year growth than January’s revised 7.8%.

Industry experts and retailers say the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the ecommerce market is uncertain, as online sales for essential products may spike while sales for non-essential items may dip. With consumers avoiding brick-and-mortar shops and many retailers temporarily closing physical stores, more consumers may shop online.

Retailers and vendors have reported surges in ecommerce sales for groceries, cleaning products, personal hygiene items and medical supplies. But it may be too early to see them fully reflected in February numbers for nonstore sales—a proxy measure for ecommerce performance. It’s also possible the boost in certain product niches may have been offset by more sluggish sales in less vital categories.

The Commerce Department’s nonstore sales—which are mainly online but include other sales such as orders through call centers, catalogs, door-to-door visits and vending machines—don’t align perfectly with spending captured in the pure ecommerce figures that the agency releases quarterly. But the data is an early indicator of trends in the online sector. Digital Commerce 360 analyzes non-seasonally adjusted Commerce Department data and excludes sales in segments that don’t typically sell online such as restaurants, bars, automobile dealers, gas stations and fuel dealers.

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Although nonstore sales were relatively steady last month without a sizable year-over-year spike or drop, overall retail sales were a different story. Total retail spending excluding estimated fuel sales jumped 7.2%—significantly higher than the 2.0% growth in February 2019 and the highest year-over-year rate for any month since February 2016. Last month’s 7.2% is also nearly double the 3.7% growth in January of this year.

In February, nonstore sales represented less than a quarter—just 21.8%—of all retail gains excluding the estimated sales of fuel. This segment typically accounts for about half or even two-thirds of spending gains across all channels, so the impact of nonstore sales had a steep drop-off in February.

With restrictions on public gatherings and temporary store closures announced in the last week plus strained fulfillment operations, retailers are bracing for a rough quarter and potentially fiscal year. The March retail report will likely show the deeper effects of both consumers stockpiling supplies ahead of possible lockdowns and quarantines as well as a slowdown in spending on dispensable items.

The growing health crisis could leave the economy in hot water, said Eric Roth, managing director at investment firm MidOcean Partners, about the retail outlook for 2020 late last month.

“I think we could be looking at a possible recession in the back half of 2020 if the coronavirus is not contained in the next three to five weeks,” he said. “If it is not, and it’s a global pandemic, then all bets may well be off.”

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Last week, the National Retail Federation and consulting and research firm Hackett Associates released a report that said the impact of COVID-19 on imports are now expected to be larger and last longer than previously anticipated as factory shutdowns and travel restrictions continue to disrupt production.

“Now that we are in the coronavirus environment, uncertainty has expanded exponentially,” said Ben Hackett, founder of Hackett Associates. “Our projections are based on the optimistic view that by the end of March or early April, some sort of normalcy will have returned to trade.”

47.0% of retailers expect some downturn in revenue due to the coronavirus, according to a survey of 304 retailers by Digital Commerce 360 this month. 32.6% of respondents said it’s too early to tell. A majority of retailers—57.9%—anticipate the virus will somewhat impact consumer confidence, and an additional 22.0% said there will be a significant impact.

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