Retail sales reached an all-time high in Q3 2020

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E-Commerce Riding High Ahead of Holiday Shopping Season, Brick & Mortar Retail Shows Q3 Comeback

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Key Takeaways

  • E-commerce sales volume reached $211.5 billion in Q2 2020, growing 32% from Q1 and 44.5% year-over-year
  • Though down slightly from Q2, e-commerce sales still had a strong Q3 just shy of $210 billion — up 37% compared to Q3 2019
  • In-store retail reached an all-time quarterly high of $1.259 trillion in Q3, rebounding 14.5% after a shaky Q2
  • As of October, there are approximately 947,000 couriers and messengers nationwide — up from 860,000 in January and 850,000 in March

As soon as the first stay-at-home orders were announced in March, it was immediately obvious that e-commerce would see a surge as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. As retailers shut their doors and remained available only for curbside pick-up or delivery, Americans spent more on online retail and ordered from the internet more often.

But, even before this transformative year, e-commerce was on an upward trend. In fact, the industry grew from representing 4.2% of all retail sales in 2010 to almost 12% at the beginning of 2020. However, the lockdown measures predictably sent e-commerce sales through the roof.

Previously, the largest quarterly growth for e-commerce sales in the last 10 years was 5.9% in Q4 2011. Q2 2020 shattered that record as e-commerce sales skyrocketed up 32% compared to Q1, reaching $211 billion in total sales as people across the nation began relying on online orders for all necessities.

For comparison, it took three years for e-commerce sales to grow from $110 billion to $160 billion, whereas they soared from $160 billion to $211 billion in just a single quarter this year.

E-commerce then saw a small drop of 1% in quarterly sales volume in Q3, down to $210 billion. Given that in-store retail gradually reopened beginning in May, this incremental decrease means that many customers maintained their online shopping habits from the height of the lockdown. As a result, e-commerce sales volume is hovering around a 15% share of total retail sales ahead of a holiday shopping season that is bound to be unique in the current environment.

Meanwhile, Q3 2020 showed a significant comeback for brick-and-mortar stores, which recorded an all-time high of $1.26 trillion in total sales volume — a growth of 14.5% compared to Q2. This comes after the industry was near a plateau between 2010 and 2019 — with quarterly changes between -1.1% and +3% — and a difficult Q2 2020, in which sales dropped below the $1.1 trillion mark for the first time in four years. Multiple factors, including stimulus checks and spillover sales after restrictions eased, could have contributed to this spike.

While some types of retailers — such as grocery stores or building material suppliers — saw virtually no change in quarterly sales volume between Q1, Q2 and Q3 2020, some categories of in-store retailers contributed more to the uptick in sales in Q3. For example, sales in car dealerships dipped from $266 billion in Q1 to $257 billion in Q2, only to jump 21% in Q3 to $310 billion. This means that sales volume for car dealerships represented more than 21% of total retail sales in Q3.

Furniture and electronics stores saw a similarily strong rebound — after falling by 29% in Q2, sales rebounded by 50% in Q3. Clothing and accessory retailers saw 95% more sales in Q3 than in the previous quarter, reaching $55 billion — just shy of Q1’s $56 billion in sales.

This rebound of brick-and-mortar retail makes the online retail’s solid Q3 even more remarkable. With surging in-store shopping numbers and solid online sales, overall retail sales volume reached $1.47 trillion, beating the previous record of $1.38 trillion from Q4 last year.

With the exception of 2015, total retail sales were stronger in Q4 than in Q3 in every year since 2010. However, with rapidly changing conditions, retail — both in-store and online — may be tested further during the 2020 holiday season.

The increasing importance of e-commerce is also evident in the number of couriers and messengers recorded throughout 2020. Unemployment has been one of the major talking points since the beginning of the pandemic as work-from-home orders and economic challenges brought along a considerable number of unemployment claims. However, the number of couriers in the U.S. has been growing month-over-month since March, reaching almost 947,000 in October. Moreover, with the increased demand for online sales logistics, the number of employees in this field was growing even when unemployment was above the 10% mark between April and July.

This uptick is also part of a larger trend: Retailers rushed to provide curbside pick-up or home delivery during the lockdown and are now continuing to develop e-commerce infrastructure to account for new shopping habits. For example, Amazon recently broke ground on two fulfillment centers in Kansas totaling 2 million square feet, in addition to increasing its footprint in New York City. The company also hired 175,000 new employees during the pandemic, of which it expected to retain 125,000 as long-term employees to help address the growth in online sales.

The upcoming holiday shopping season will likely test the lessons imparted on retailers during the lockdown. However, a strong third quarter for retail — both online and in-store — points toward a Q4 that could allow room for growth for both types of retailers.


Estimates on total retail sales volume and e-commerce sales volume were provided by the U.S. Census Bureau. Sales volume for non e-commerce (brick-and-mortar/in-store retail) sales volume was obtained by subtracting e-commerce sales volume from total retail sales. All quarterly sale estimates are seasonally adjusted.

Monthly employment for couriers and messengers was provided by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

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