Retail sales grew for 4th straight month in August — but September looks flat

Canadian retailers logged $53.2 in sales in August, the fourth month in a row that sales have increased since cratering in April because of COVID-19.

But preliminary numbers for September show that sales flattened during that month, a discouraging sign that the recovery may be running out of steam.

Statistics Canada reported Wednesday that overall, sales grew by $192 million, or 0.5 per cent, from July’s level.

The increase was driven by higher sales at building material and garden equipment stores, along with food and beverage stores.

On the downside, sales at clothing stores were unchanged and sales at sporting goods, hobby, book and music stores fell, as did home furnishings.

Online sales continue to be much stronger than what they were before the pandemic, but they, too, are losing momentum as brick-and-mortar stores reopen.

E-commerce sales clocked in at $2.8 billion in August, slightly down from July’s level but still up by more than 60 per cent compared to a year ago.

All in all, August’s data means that retail sales are 3.5 per cent higher than where they were a year ago, and 1.8 per cent higher than where they were in February, before COVID-19 began in Canada.

But there are wide variances across the country. Seven provinces are seeing higher retail sales than they were before COVID. But in three — Ontario, Alberta and Prince Edward Island — retailers still haven’t fully recovered.

“Consumers continue to drive the recovery, with limited availability of services and travel at least partly redirected into goods spending,” Bank of Montreal economist Robert Kavcic said of the numbers. 

“But with a lot of pent-up demand and lifestyle-adjustment spending seemingly running its course, this momentum could be tougher to sustain in the quarters ahead.”