US retail sales suffered a record drop in March as mandatory business closures to control the spread of the coronavirus outbreak depressed demand for a range of goods.
This has set up consumer spending for its worst decline in decades.
The Commerce Department today said retail sales plunged 8.7% in March, the biggest decline since the government started tracking the series in 1992, after falling by a revised 0.4% in February.
According to a Reuters survey of economists, retail sales were forecast to have fallen 8% last month.
The report came as millions of Americans are thrown out of work, and strengthen economists' conviction that the economy is in deep recession.
States and local governments have issued "stay-at-home" or "shelter-in-place" orders affecting more than 90% of Americans to curb the spread of Covid-19, the respiratory illness caused by the virus, and abruptly stopping the country.
The drag on sales in most retail categories from social restrictions far outweighed a surge in receipts at online retailers like Amazon, and grocery stores and pharmacies as consumers stocked up on household essentials such as food, toilet paper, cleaning supplies and medication.
Consumer spending accounts for more than two-thirds of US economic activity.
It grew at a 1.8% pace in the fourth quarter, with the overall economy expanding at a 2.1% rate over that period.
Economists see no respite for consumer spending in the second quarter, with estimates as low as a 41% rate of decline, despite a historic $2.3 trillion fiscal package, which made provisions for cash payments to some families and boosted unemployment benefit checks.
Economists believe the US economy entered recession in March.
The National Bureau of Economic Research, the private research institute regarded as the arbiter of US recessions, does not define a recession as two consecutive quarters of decline in real gross domestic product, as is the rule of thumb in many countries.
Instead, it looks for a drop in activity, spread across the economy and lasting more than a few months.