Biggest fall in clothing sales in 8 plus years: CommSec's Craig James

Biggest fall in clothing sales in 8 plus years: CommSec's Craig James
Biggest fall in clothing sales in 8 plus years: CommSec's Craig James

EXPERT OBSERVER

Consumers stockpiled food and supermarket groceries in February ahead of restrictive self-isolation and social distancing measures announced by governments to counter the fast-spreading coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak.

Retail spending grew by a solid 0.5 per cent in February – the second strongest growth rate in 12 months. But this followed declines in spending of 0.6 per cent in December and 0.3 per cent in January, due to disruptions from big city smoke hazes and the bushfire emergency.

Many Aussie retailers decided to close their businesses before government orders to shut down to protect both the health of their employees and customers from the ravages of the virus. Tens of thousands of workers in the retail trade industry were stood down indefinitely. And shoppers decided to scale-back purchases of non-essential discretionary goods, such as clothing and footwear. In fact spending on shoes and apparel fell by 2.3 per cent over the year to February – the biggest annual decline since 2011.

Consumer caution is also evident in spending on motor vehicles. As Aussies began to hibernate from the virus at home, national new vehicle sales posted their weakest March month in 11 years.

Aussie builders and construction workers are in for a tough time over the next few months. According to the AiGroup, construction businesses reported that, “Economic uncertainty due to the COVID-19 pandemic has dampened client confidence, increased risk aversion and lowered demand. Some businesses reported supply disruptions due to COVID-19 measures, particularly for imported building materials.”

Retail trade – February

‘Final’ retail trade rose by 0.5 per cent in February, above the preliminary Bureau of Statistics (ABS) estimate of 0.4 per cent. The lift in spending follows spending declines of 0.3 per cent in January and 0.6 per cent in December. The annual growth rate fell from 2.0 per cent to 1.8 per cent – the weakest rate in over 2 years.

Non-food retailing rose by 0.2 per cent in February following a 0.8 per cent decline in January. But the annual growth fell from 1.4 per cent to 1.0 per cent – the slowest growth rate in over 2 years.

Sales by chain-store retailers and other large retailers rose by 0.3 per cent in February to be up 1.8 per cent from a year ago – the weakest annual growth rate in over 2 years.

The share of online retailing rose from 5.6 per cent to 6.6 per cent over the year to February.

Spending rose most in February: Department stores (up 3.1 per cent); Pharmaceutical, cosmetic and toiletry goods retailing (up 2.2 per cent); Hardware, building and garden supplies retailing (up 1.3 per cent); and Supermarket and grocery stores (up 1.1 per cent).

Spending fell most in February: Clothing retailing (down 3.1 per cent); Footwear and other personal accessory retailing (down 2.4 per cent); and Newspaper and book retailing (down 2.0 per cent).

Across states/territories in February: Spending rose the most in Western Australia (1.2 per cent), followed by the ACT (up 1.1 per cent), Queensland (up 0.8 per cent), Victoria (up 0.5 per cent), South Australia (up 0.4 per cent). Tasmania and NSW were broadly unchanged. Spending in the Northern Territory fell by 0.7 per cent.

New vehicle sales - March

The Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries reported: “The March 2020 market of 81,690 new vehicle sales is a decrease of 17,752 vehicle sales or -17.9 per cent on March 2019 (99,442) vehicle sales. March 2020 had the same number of selling days as March 2019 (25.5) and this resulted in a decrease of 696.2 vehicle sales per day.”

“The Passenger Vehicle Market is down by 7,222 vehicle sales (-24.9 per cent) over the same month last year; the Sports Utility Market is down by 6,489 vehicle sales (-14.2 per cent); the Light Commercial Market is down by 3,326 vehicle sales (-15.5 per cent); and the Heavy Commercial Vehicle Market is down by 715 vehicle sales (-21.7 per cent) versus March 2019.”

Sales across states and territories over year to March: NSW (down 16.4 per cent); Victoria (down 21.3 per cent); Queensland (down 20.2 per cent); South Australia (down 27.9 per cent); Western Australia (down 14.4 per cent); Tasmania (down 21.2 per cent); Northern Territory (down 33.5 per cent); ACT (up 77.0 per cent).

The biggest selling vehicle in March was the Toyota Hi-Lux (3,556) from the Ford Ranger (3,108) and Toyota RAV4 (2,991).

The rolling annual total of new vehicle sales in March was 1,027,690, down 9.1 per cent on the year after falling 8.1 per cent in the year to February. Passenger car sales fell by 17.6 per cent on the year with SUVs down 2.6 per cent and “other vehicles” down 9.8 per cent.

In the year to March, SUVs accounted for a record 61.7 per cent of combined SUV and passenger vehicle sales.

Services Purchasing Managers’ index - March

The ‘final’ CBA/IHS Markit Services Purchasing Managers' Index fell from 49.0 points in February to a record low 38.5 points in March. Any reading below 50 indicates a contraction in activity.

According to the CBA and IHS Markit, “The global outbreak of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) weighed heavily on the Australian service sector in March, with the latest PMI data showing a slump in business activity. This was concurrent with a deepening downturn in new sales, led by a record fall in new overseas business. With backlogs of work falling markedly, firms reduced jobs further. Business confidence also fell to a survey-record low, while price pressures moderated.”

Performance of Construction - March

The Performance of Construction index (PCI) fell by 4.8 points to 37.9 points in March – the lowest level since May 2013. A reading below 50 points indicates construction activity is contracting.

Construction activity (down 6.0 points to 39.1 points) and, new orders (down 10.3 points to 35.4 points) fell by the most. Construction employment fell by just 0.5 points to 36.4 points, depressed at the second lowest level in 7 years.

By sector, house building lifted by 0.3 points to 53.2 points in trend terms, but apartment (down 1.5 points to 31.9 points), commercial construction (down 1.6 points to 35.1 points) and engineering activity (up 2 points to 42.2 points) all contracted in March.

According to the AiGroup, “The Australian PCI® suggests that house building activity has remained resilient in 2020 to date, although contacting new orders and the sector’s vulnerability to the deteriorating COVID-19 situation will weigh more heavily on conditions in coming months. In other sectors, activity is experiencing on-going declines amid a weak flow of work opportunities and new invitations to tender.”

And, “Respondents in the Australian PCI® reported further price rises for imported materials and subsequent pressure on margins due to the weak Australian dollar. Businesses are bracing for worsening construction conditions as virus-related impacts on economic activity and demand increase.”

What are the implications for interest rates and investors?

The next preliminary retail trade data from the Bureau of Statistics is not due until the week of April 20. The nation’s statisticians are having some difficulty obtaining spending data – with trend series data unavailable in February – due to COVID-19 associated disruptions.

But more timely data on consumer spending patterns is available from both the Commonwealth Bank (CBA) and Kepler Analytics. According to Kepler Analytics data, shopping centre foot traffic fell by 56 per cent in the week ended March 29 from a year ago. And around 55 per cent of stores had closed nationally by March 31. Retailers have also acted to cut fixed costs, such as wages and rent. And some retailers are remaining open by focusing on online sales. Of course, the announced JobKeeper government wage subsidy is also designed to cover store wages – where possible – and keep retail employees attached to their jobs ahead of an eventual recovery.

And recent weekly CBA credit & debit card spending shows strong increases in consumer spending on food and alcohol, as well as on household furnishings and equipment. But spending on clothing, transport, recreation and personal care – all deemed “non-essential” due to self-isolation measures – continue to decline.

The slowing in demand for new residential homes is evidenced by the sharp slowdown in new orders for both apartments and houses. Commercial construction new orders declined for a 20th successive month. And engineering new orders also weakened “due to a lack of new contracts to replace completed infrastructure projects”, according to the AiGroup.

CRAIG JAMES is the Chief Economist at CommSec

Craig James

Craig James

Craig James is the Chief Economist at CommSec, interpreting ‘big picture’ economic and financial trends.

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