(CBS DFW) — A growing number of people are venturing out and spending more money. The Commerce Department says retail sales surged 9.8 percent in March, almost double what analysts expected. Advance estimates of U.S. retail and food services sales also show a 27.7 percent jump from March 2020, when the COVID pandemic derailed much of the economy.
There are a few explanations for the retail resurgence. Vaccinations have been accelerating across the country, allowing more people a higher level of comfort in dining out and shopping in person. Job numbers continue to improve in many of the harder-hit industries. And most eligible recipients have already received their third stimulus check worth $1,400 per person. In all likelihood, the resurgence is probably the result of these and other influences.
Vaccinations are progressing steadily, with two different options available to the public and a third only recently placed on pause due to a blood clot issue. The President recently stated that 90 percent of American adults will be eligible by the middle of April. Actually putting needles in arms takes longer, though most states have lowered the qualifying age to include most adults. The administration is close to reaching its revised goal of administering 200 million doses in its first 100 days. Americans have received over 198 million doses, with 37.9 percent of the population having received at least one dose and 23.6 percent completely vaccinated. Vaccination numbers continue to increase at a rate of over three million doses per day.
While employment remains well below pre-pandemic levels, the number of first-time applicants for unemployment insurance continues to fall. Last week, approximately 576,000 people initially applied for unemployment benefits, significantly down from the previous week. The unemployment rate also dipped to 6 percent in March from 6.2 percent in February. The latest figure is well off the pandemic high of 14.8 percent last April.
Large parts of the workforce felt little economic impact from the pandemic. Many jobs performed at a desk in an office can just as easily be performed at a desk in someone’s home. And with fewer outlets for spending, some actually managed to save more money. The personal saving rate ballooned to 33.7 percent last April and, at 13.7 percent for February 2021, remains almost double where it was before the pandemic.
The American Rescue Plan Act also bestowed upon eligible Americans a third stimulus check worth $1,400 per person. These relief payments are part of a larger effort to cushion COVID’s economic impact on households and support the economy while the pandemic recovery continues. For those who have lost income over the last year, they offered some relief from mounting bills. For those who maintained their level of income, they delivered a sort of bonus that could be plowed back into the economy.
A hunger for normalcy has Americans filling up restaurants again. Doug Collister is a partner at China Live in San Francisco. He says, “Restaurants are coming back to life and doing what we love, which is hospitality for our diners and our guests, and it’s what we live for.” People are spending more time in stores as well, giving struggling retailers a much-needed boost. “I feel comfortable being out here, and I’m happy to spend what money I have, you know? Enjoying my life,” says shopper Tim Jones.
Mark Hamrick, an economic analyst with Bankrate.com, says, “I think we have a lot of reasons to smile right now with respect to what’s happening in the U.S. economy.” He adds, “We have the impacts of all the federal stimulus or relief payments, so there’s money to spend right now.”
Hamrick says car dealers saw an increase in customers last month. There was a big jump in business at clothing and sporting goods stores. “What’s perhaps most heartening right now is that we’re seeing big pickups at brick-and-mortar retailers,” he says.
Businesses are looking for more workers, and that’s giving the job market a boost. Last week there was a drop in the number of Americans applying for unemployment benefits. “I think the sky’s the limit for the U.S. economy,” says Hamrick. He believes unemployment will continue to fall in the coming months and spending will get closer to pre-pandemic levels.