Retail sales growth ended 2020 at its lowest in over a decade

Ed Strapagiel's latest analysis shows bright spots and recent rebounds were not enough to offset early dips and sluggish sectors.

Despite record-high sales growth in the food and drug sector and rebounds in other categories to end the year, Canada’s bricks-and-mortar retail sales still ended 2020 with their lowest growth since the Great Recession, according to the latest analysis from Ed Strapagiel.

Retail sales declined by 1.3% in 2020, the industry’s lowest performance since sales shrunk by 2.9% in 2009. In 2019, retail sales grew by 1.2%.

A mix of the holiday shopping season, store reopenings and the market beginning to get more used to the current shopping environment all helped retail begin to rebound in Q4, up 5.7% year-over-year. However, it wasn’t enough to make up for sluggish performance earlier in the year and ongoing declines in certain categories.

In store merchandise, retail sales ended 2020 with 1% sales growth, having recovered to a gain of 7.6% in Q4 after a staggering 12.4% drop in Q2.

Certain categories, especially non-essential businesses that had been allowed to reopen as the year went on, posted growth that well outpaced their performance throughout the rest of 2020. Sales at furniture and home stores grew by 14.8% in Q4, though after spending much of 2020 closed, the category still ended the year down 4.3%. Electronics store sales grew by 15.8% in Q4 (up 8.3% for the year), building stores grew by 24.3% (up 11.8% for the year) and sporting goods stores sales grew by 11% (down by 2.1% for the year). Also, the “miscellaneous” category, which includes cannabis stores, grew 17.6% in Q4, ending the year up 10.2%.

Clothing and fashion stores, meanwhile, have continued to be hammered, as reopening their doors was not enough to make up for a lack of demand: sales shrunk by 18.5% in Q4, ending the year down 26.8%.

In automotive, sales were down by 1.4% in Q4, with a return to positive growth at car dealerships and auto parts stores offset by continued declines at gas pumps, where sales were down 17.7%. One interesting bright spot Strapagiel points out is the “other” category, which includes things like motor homes, recreational trailers, motorcycles, recreational watercraft, snowmobiles and ATVs: sales grew by 33.5% in Q4, including 59.9% in December alone.

Despite positive developments, Strapagiel says it is unlikely recent positive developments will continue, outside of the food and drug sector. While there is some hope that retailers are better-versed in ecommerce, deliveries and curbside pickup than they were at this time last year, renewed pandemic safety measures that have closed non-essential stores once again will have an inevitable impact on location-based sales.

In the food and drug sector, retail sales grew by a record-breaking 11.5% in Q4, continuing a strong performance and ending the year with 8.8% growth. Grocery stores sales grew by 12.3% in Q4 2020 and 11.7% for the full year, with convenience and specialty food stores also recorded double digit retail sales increases in Q4. Health and personal care stores had a slow start to the year, up by only 4.2% for the last twelve months, but grew by 12.4% in Q4.

On the ecommerce front, after online retail sales doubled year-over-year in Q2, it has settled to a more modest 72% increase in Q4. Ecommerce now represents roughly 5.9% of total retail sales in Canada.