Australian retail sales tick up, just: Westpac's Matthew Hassan

Australian retail sales tick up, just: Westpac's Matthew Hassan
Australian retail sales tick up, just: Westpac's Matthew Hassan

EXPERT OBSERVATION

Retail sales rose 0.1% in January, a disappointing result compared to consensus expectations of a 0.3% gain. Retail was coming off a 0.4% fall in the final month of 2018, so the muted January rise speaks to continued weakness carrying into early 2019.

Annual sales growth has slowed to 2.7%yr with the trend pace over the last six months closer to 2%yr.

The detail showed gains were confined to food sub-categories – both basic food and cafes & restaurants up 0.3%mth – with non food categories down 0.1%mth on a combined basis. Within the latter: department stores booked another sizeable decline (–2.1%mth following –1.3% in Dec and a muted 0.4% gain in Nov); clothing was down 0.3% coming off a 3% fall in Dec but a strong 4.4% gain over Oct-Nov; and household goods retail was flat, coming off 0.8% gains in Nov and Dec. The 'other retail' category - mainly 'small ticket' discretionary items – posted a 0.7% gain.

The picture by state did have one slight positive with a solid 0.7% rise in NSW. The state had shown a much weaker finish to 2018, raising concerns that wealth effect drags were starting to bite harder. The Jan gain pares that weakness back a bit although trend sales are still weaker, flat lining vs slight 0.2% a month gains in most other states.

Looking by channel, online sales look to have posted a 2-3% gain for the month, with retail ex online down slightly (–0.1%mth).

By retailer size, small retailers reported a 0.6% fall with non food retailers driving the monthly gain amongst larger retailers. Despite this, large food retailers have still seen the best growth over the last year, sales up 4.9%yr on a combined basis, some of which relates to firmer pricing.

Separate data on vehicle sales have been mixed in early 2019. Our estimates suggest monthly seasonally adjusted sales rose in Jan but slipped back a touch in Feb. Seasonal adjustment is more problematic around this time of year so these moves should be treated with caution. Sales are still down about 10%yr. The Q4 national accounts detail showed a 1.5%qtr decline in consumer vehicle purchases, tracking a 6% annual pace of declines over the last three quarters of 2018.

Overall the slight gain in January retail sales indicates that the soft spending conditions over the second half of 2018 have extended into 2019. While sales may not be contracting in nominal terms they are likely to be down in volume terms once price changes are excluded.

MATTHEW HASSAN is a Senior Economist for Westpac

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