Christmas spending plans point to flat finish to a flat year: Matthew Hassan

Christmas spending plans point to flat finish to a flat year: Matthew Hassan
Christmas spending plans point to flat finish to a flat year: Matthew Hassan

In what is already shaping as a hotly contested retail high season, the early signs are not promising for consumer spending over Christmas 2017. The picture from November's Westpac-Melbourne Institute Consumer Sentiment survey is one of income pressures, nervousness about the year ahead and consumers looking to keep Christmas spending on a tight rein. A repeat of 2016's 'tepid' Christmas spend looks likely.

November's Westpac-Melbourne Institute Consumer Sentiment survey showed the consumer mood slipping back into slightly pessimistic territory after a brief moment of optimism in October (see Consumer Sentiment Index back below 100). Responses to our annual question on Christmas spending underscore the lacklustre tone. The question asks if consumers expect to spend less, about the same, or more on Christmas gifts than last year. Just under a third of Australians expect to spend less on gifts this year than last, with 54% expecting to spend about the same and just 11% spending more – the lowest proportion since we began running this question in 2009.

The simplest summary measure of intentions is an index based on the net balance of responses, i.e. 100 + %more – %less. On this basis, the 2017 reading is 78, down 2.3% from 79.9 in 2016. This year's read is comparable to the 2009-13 period which saw five successive years of readings in the 77-79 range . While far from the disastrous, 66 reading in the depths of the GFC, the 2017 index is also a far cry from the most recent peak in 2015 (87.0) and the record high in 2007 (91). Overall, the 78 reading is broadly consistent with flat per capita growth in retail sales. Allowing for population gains, that points to aggregate retail sales growth of around 1.6%yr, in line with the current subdued pace and down on the 2% gain in 2016.

The survey detail offers few redeeming positives. The state responses show consumers in Vic and NSW are a little less inclined to restrain spending and Qlder's are less pessimistic than last year but those in SA and WA are tilting more towards cut backs (the latter a notable weak spot). Sub-group variations were also fairly minor although responses amongst those aged over 55, middle income earners and consumers with a mortgage show bigger pull backs vs a year ago.

The wider picture from Consumer Sentiment is of a similar lead-in to last year. That puts the Christmas 2017 in the 'middle of the pack' by long term historical standards but will clearly come as a disappointment for Australian retailers who have already endured a lacklustre, stop-start year for sales. 

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Christmas Matthew Hassan

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