After a slowdown in nonstore growth following an early summer peak, the channel's year-over-year gains picked back up last month. Spending through all channels also saw explosive growth with a 12.2% jump, marking the highest rate for total retail sales growth in recorded history.

After two months of decelerating year-over-year growth and speculation that the pandemic-driven surge in ecommerce was tapering off a bit, U.S. nonstore sales shot back up again in September and set new records, new U.S. Department of Commerce data shows.

Last month, consumer spending through nonstore channels swelled 28.3% over September 2019, according to a Digital Commerce 360 analysis of the Commerce Department’s advance monthly figures released Friday. Numbers exclude estimated fuel sales. That’s the highest-ever year-over-year growth for the month of September since at least 1992—the first year for which the agency published data—and more than 11 percentage points higher than the No. 2 showing, which came in September 2019. It also marks the second-highest year-over-year jump of any month dating back to 1992, behind only 31.5% in June 2020.

Nonstore sales growth had been steadily increasing in 2020, nearly quadrupling from January to June, when the monthly year-over-year uptick peaked. Since then, growth had slowed for two consecutive months until September’s performance, which was significantly higher than August’s 21.5% rise.

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 numbers.

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Through the first three quarters of 2020, nonstore sales grew 21.9% over the same nine months in the prior year—the highest-ever rate for the period and up significantly from 14.9% year-to-date growth in 2019.

Online sales growth picks back up again

Research firms that track data for ecommerce players and technology vendors with insights into the transactions of their retail clients also noted a September bump after a recent leveling off of digital revenue.

Adobe Analytics, the data insights arm of software company Adobe Inc., reported substantially higher online spending last month, with U.S. ecommerce sales getting a 43% year-over-year boost in September. That was a just slight increase from August’s 42% rise over the same month in 2019 but the first acceleration in growth after June’s dramatic 76% jump in online sales dropped off to 55% in July and further tempered in August.

Adobe’s data is based on transactions from more than one trillion anonymous online visits to retail sites, including 80 of the top 100 retailers in the Digital Commerce 360 Top 1000, and covers more than 100 million SKUs. Data is based on a variety of product categories including apparel, electronics, home, grocery, appliance, personal care, office supplies, books, jewelry, furniture and toys, among others.

The online order volume across the network of retail clients for CommerceHub, an ecommerce software provider, also continued to surge last month, although the firm declined to release precise numbers. Erik Morton, senior vice president of product and strategy, points to recent CommerceHub survey results as proof that COVID-19 buying behaviors aren’t abating.

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“Nearly 85% of consumers still have reservations about shopping in store, and of that group, over 60% seldom visit a store other than the grocery store,” he says. “Out of concern for social distancing and out of convenience, a vast majority of Americans now prefer to shop from the safety of their homes. All commerce is now ecommerce.”

Total sales stage big recovery

Despite nonstore’s stellar performance, growth in the channel accounted for less than half—46.7%—of all retail gains in September after representing nearly three-quarters—72.2%—of total retail growth in August. That means in-store sales rebounded in a big way in September, jumping 8.2% over the same month in 2019 after just a 2.0% year-over-year increase in August. The growth is especially notable for this time of year, when there’s a historical lull after back-to-school shopping and before another ramp-up with Halloween and the winter holiday kickoff. This suggests pent-up demand from consumers in September.

Total retail sales through all channels for Digital Commerce 360-defined segments increased for the fifth-straight month after a big drop in April, when most stores were closed. Year-over-year growth reached a record 12.2% in September—the highest rate for any month of the nearly three decades for which data is available. September’s spike in total sales was welcome news after August’s deceleration to 5.8% growth. It also was more than triple the 4.0% growth registered in September 2019.

“Retail sales are continuing to build on the momentum we’ve seen through the summer and have been boosted by an improving labor market, a rebound in consumer confidence and elevated savings,” says Jack Kleinhenz, chief economist at the National Retail Federation. “A significant number of people remain unemployed, but more are going back to work, and that makes them confident about spending. These numbers and other economic data show the nation’s economy remains on its recovery path.”

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Consumers are shopping again, prompted by government support measures, he says, and with less spending on personal services, travel and entertainment outside the home, “some of that money is shifting to retail cash registers.”

Surprisingly, total retail sales were up 5.8% year over year for the first three quarters of 2020, despite the toll that the pandemic has taken on the economy and consumer confidence. That’s the highest increase for the nine-month period since 2006, when growth hit 5.9%, and one-and-a-half times higher than the 3.9% registered in 2019.

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