Retail trade, March 2020
Retail sales fell for the first time in five months, plunging 10.0% to $47.1 billion in March. This drop is the largest on record and is comparable to the retail sales decline observed in the United States (-7.1%) and other countries in the wake of COVID-19. As a result of this pandemic, many Canadian retailers shut down operations mid-month, curtailed hours and customer flow in the stores that remained open, all of which contributed to changes in the shopping habits of consumers.
Based on respondent feedback, about 40% of retailers closed their doors during March. The average length of shutdowns was five business days. In the clothing and clothing accessories stores subsector, 91% of retailers were closed in March for an average of 13 days. Despite these challenging times, many retailers reported their sales figures and Statistics Canada thanks them for their continued collaboration.
Record declines at motor vehicle and parts dealers, clothing and clothing accessories stores and gasoline stations led the March decrease.
Sales were down in 6 of 11 subsectors, representing 39.2% of retail trade.
Retail sales in volume terms declined a record 8.2%.
Given the rapidly evolving economic situation, Statistics Canada is providing an advance estimate of April sales. The advance results for April indicate that retail sales decreased 15.6%. Owing to its preliminary nature, this figure should be expected to be revised.
Retail e-commerce sales soar
The COVID-19 pandemic caused many Canadian retailers to open or expand their e-commerce platforms in March in response to physical distancing measures and storefront closures.
On an unadjusted basis (that is, not seasonally adjusted) retail e-commerce sales were $2.2 billion in March, accounting for 4.8% of total retail trade. This uptick in retail e-commerce was atypical for March and similar to the pattern normally observed at the start of the annual holiday shopping period. On a year-over-year basis, retail e-commerce increased 40.4%, while total unadjusted retail sales declined 9.6%.
When adjusted for basic seasonal effects, retail e-commerce grew 16.3%.
Widespread declines in the wake of closures and physical distancing measures
Many retailers were deemed non-essential in March, resulting in temporary storefront closures or reduced hours of operation. The motor vehicle and parts dealers subsector (-35.6%) contributed the most to the sales decline in March, largely due to lower consumer demand as Canadians continued to physically-distance and avoid all non-essential commerce. Sales were down at all four store types within the subsector, led by new car dealers (-38.5%).
Gasoline stations sales were down by nearly one-fifth (-19.8%), the largest decline on record, while the volume of gasoline sold decreased 1.8%. Crude oil prices declined sharply in March due to a global oil supply glut as well as the COVID-19-driven international economic slowdown.
Clothing and clothing accessories (-51.3%), furniture and home furnishings (-24.5%) and sporting goods, hobby, book and music (-23.8%) stores all reported their largest monthly drops on record.
Meanwhile, sales surge at grocery stores
While many retailers were hurt by COVID-19 in March, some reported record higher sales. For example, sales at food and beverage (+22.8%) and general merchandise (+6.4%) stores rose to the highest level on record and posted their largest monthly gain since the beginning of the series.
Sales at health and personal care stores rose 4.6% in March, the fifth consecutive monthly increase and the highest sales level on record.
Sales down in every province
Sales were down in every province in March, largely attributable to motor vehicle and parts dealers. Seven provinces posted their largest monthly decline on record.
In Ontario, sales declined 9.0%, following a 0.9% increase in February. In the census metropolitan area (CMA) of Toronto, sales were down 12.7%.
Sales were down in Quebec (-15.7%) for the second straight month, led by the CMA of Montréal (-18.2%).
In Alberta, sales were down 13.0%, following a 0.1% decline in February.
Canada-United States comparison
Retail sales were down 7.1% in the United States in March, compared with a 10.0% decline in Canada (see Note to readers).
Like Canada, declines in US retail sales were led by motor vehicle and parts dealers and clothing and clothing accessories stores. Sales at food and beverage and general merchandise stores grew at similar paces in Canada and the United States, reflecting stockpiling and more people shopping at essential retailers.
While subnational jurisdictions within Canada and the United States deployed different regulations on different days, the March monthly movements were similar in both countries.
Note to readers
All data in this release are seasonally adjusted and expressed in current dollars, unless otherwise noted.
Seasonally adjusted data are data that have been modified to eliminate the effect of seasonal and calendar influences to allow for more meaningful comparisons of economic conditions from period to period. For more information on seasonal adjustment, see Seasonally adjusted data – Frequently asked questions.
Trend-cycle estimates are included in selected charts as a complement to the seasonally adjusted series. These data represent a smoothed version of the seasonally adjusted time series and provide information on longer-term movements including changes in direction underlying the series. For information on trend-cycle data, see Trend-cycle estimates – Frequently asked questions
Both seasonally adjusted data and trend-cycle estimates are subject to revision as additional observations become available. These revisions could be large and could even lead to a reversal of movement, especially for reference months near the end of the series or during periods of economic disruptions.
For information regarding cannabis statistics, consult the Cannabis Stats Hub.
Seasonally adjusted estimates for cannabis store retailers are presented in unadjusted form as there is no seasonal pattern established by official statistics yet. Establishing such a pattern requires several months of observed data. In the interim, the seasonally adjusted estimates for cannabis store retailers will be identical to the unadjusted figures.
Statistics Canada's retail e-commerce figures include the electronic sales of two distinct types of retailers. The first type do not have a storefront. These businesses are commonly referred to as pure-play Internet retailers and are classified to North American Industry Classification System (NAICS) 45411—Electronic Shopping and Mail Order Houses. The second type have a storefront and are commonly referred to as brick-and-mortar retailers. If the online operations of a brick-and-mortar retailer are separately managed, they too are classified to NAICS 45411.
Some common electronic commerce transactions, such as travel and accommodation bookings, ticket purchases, and financial transactions, are not included in Canadian retail sales figures.
For more information on retail e-commerce in Canada, see "Retail E-Commerce in Canada."
Total retail sales expressed in volume terms are calculated by deflating current dollar values using consumer price indexes. The retail sales series in chained (2012) dollars is a chained Fisher volume index with 2012 as the reference year.
Canadian seasonally adjusted retail trade statistics measure monthly sales in industries 441 through 453 of the North American Industrial Classification System. US total retail sales have been adjusted to match this industrial composition.
Real-time tables 20-10-0054-01 and 20-10-0079-01 will be updated soon.
Data on retail trade for April will be released on June 19.
For more information, or to enquire about the concepts, methods or data quality of this release, contact us (toll-free 1-800-263-1136; 514-283-8300; STATCAN.infostats-infostats.STATCAN@canada.ca) or Media Relations (613-951-4636; STATCAN.mediahotline-ligneinfomedias.STATCAN@canada.ca).