Retail is on the rebound, but smaller businesses are still at risk, National Retail Federation CEO says

As retail sales pick up again, National Retail Federation CEO Matthew Shay said he wants to make sure small and mid-sized stores and restaurants can make a comeback, too.

“They get hit harder and they get hit first and so we need to bring them back quickly,” he said on CNBC’s “Squawk Box.”

Retail sales jumped by 17.7% in May, the Commerce Department said Tuesday morning. That includes customers’ online purchases, as well as those at brick-and-mortar restaurants, bars and stores.

Shay said he’s encouraged to see customers spending again as stay-at-home orders lift. After sheltering in place during the coronavirus pandemic, he said “there was significant pent-up demand” among Americans, including many who had more money in their pockets because of the government stimulus checks.

He said that federal relief and unemployment benefits “provided a big jolt that we needed.”

However, he acknowledged that the rebound is uneven. Big retailers, such as Walmart, Lowe’s and BJ’s Wholesale Club, have had strong sales — and they were among the essential retailers that didn’t have to shut their doors during the pandemic.

Smaller businesses, however, are still struggling, he said. 

“The big question will be what happens to those small, independent, those mid-sized companies,” he said. “Can we get the rest of the economy moving quickly enough that we can bring the small businesses along?”

The May numbers are a promising uptick after retail sales tumbled by a record 16.4% in April, according to a government report. The steepest drop was at clothing stores, which declined by 78.8%. Other hard-hit categories were electronics and appliances, which fell by 60.6%,  furniture and home furnishing, which dropped by 58.7%, and sporting goods, which declined by 38%.

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