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Retail Commodity Survey, March 2021

Released: 2021-06-07

Retail sales reached $55.3 billion in March, an increase of 26.7% compared with the same month a year earlier. This marked the largest increase on record for the sector, due in large part to the sharp declines seen at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020. Higher sales were reported in 16 of the 19 commodity categories.

Looking ahead to April, the advance estimate provided by the Monthly Retail Trade Survey suggests that unadjusted total retail sales increased by 60.1%. Because of its preliminary nature, this figure will be revised.

Automotive sales accelerate into March

Strong sales of motor vehicles in March, coupled with sharp declines at the onset of the pandemic a year earlier, resulted in record growth on a year-over-year basis for the product category (+75.1%). This was the largest gain among all categories in dollar terms. Growth in automotive sales was driven largely by higher sales of new motor vehicles (+85.8%), as new minivans, sport utility vehicles and light trucks (+89.5%), new passenger automobiles (+70.5%), and medium and heavy trucks (+35.3%) all posted gains. Used automobile sales also saw strong growth in the month, increasing 57.8% from the same month in 2020.

The sale of automotive fuel continued to experience strong growth, increasing 21.8% from March of the previous year. This marked the first month of positive growth for the product category since February 2020. This gain was spurred by higher prices at the pump, which rose 35.3% from March 2020.

Food sales fall sharply in March following 2020 stockpiling

As a result of consumer stockpiling in March 2020, food sales posted the largest decline in the sector in March, down 8.4% year over year. This was the first decline for the product category since September 2019. Non-perishable food options that were among the most sought-after in March 2020 saw the largest drops, with packaged food dry goods n.e.c. (-23.6%), fresh meat and poultry (-9.6%), and frozen food (-11.1%) posting the biggest declines in the month.

Soft drinks and alcoholic beverages rose 4.3%. Sales in this product category were buoyed by growth in alcoholic beverages (+5.4%), which compensated for declining sales of other beverage types in the month.

With retail sales returning to normal levels in 2021, many products affected by panic buying in March of 2020 saw sharp declines. Among the most affected were miscellaneous household supplies n.e.c. (-26.2%), household cleaning supplies (-16.7%), and non-prescription pharmaceuticals (-31.4%). Conversely, many products that were neglected during the panic buying at the onset of the pandemic experienced strong year-over-year growth as spending returned to normal, including eyewear (+63.4%), clothing (+64.2%) and footwear (+89.1%).

Non-essential spending soars

As spring approached, home improvement remained a fixture of the pandemic, resulting in record sales of hardware, tools, and renovation and lawn and garden products, which rose 59.7% compared with the same month a year prior. This growth was due in large part to an increase in sales of renovation materials and supplies, as strong demand and higher prices for lumber resulted in a 56.2% advance year over year.

With Canadians preparing to enjoy the summer amid the pandemic, many non-essential products saw strong growth in the month, including recreational vehicles (+111.8%), bicycles and biking equipment and accessories (+107.3%), golf equipment (+297.4%) and hunting, fishing and camping equipment (+31.9%).

  Note to readers

The Retail Commodity Survey collects national-level retail sales data, by commodity, from the same businesses surveyed in the Monthly Retail Trade Survey. No data have been seasonally adjusted. All percentage changes are year over year.

New retail commodity data for e-commerce now available

Estimates from the Retail Commodity Survey are now available for the electronic shopping and mail-order houses industry (North American Industry Classification System [NAICS] code 454110).

E-commerce figures from brick-and-mortar retailers are included with the retailer's commodity sales. If the online operations of a brick-and-mortar retailer are separately managed, they are classified under NAICS code 45411 (electronic shopping and mail-order houses). Businesses commonly referred to as pure-play Internet retailers are also classified under NAICS code 45411. Total retail sales figures do not include sales from retailers classified under NAICS code 45411.

New Quarterly Retail Commodity Survey data visualization tool

Check out the latest Quarterly Retail Commodity Survey estimates in a new interactive way. The new Retail Commodity Survey Data Visualization Tool allows users to view, customize and interpret quarterly sales data more easily.

Contact information

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; or Media Relations (613-951-4636;

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