Retail volume results materially weaker than expected: Westpac's Matthew Hassan

Retail volume results materially weaker than expected: Westpac's Matthew Hassan
Retail volume results materially weaker than expected: Westpac's Matthew Hassan

EXPERT OBSERVATION

The March retail report showed a slightly better than expected monthly gain but a materially weaker than expected result for March quarter sales volumes, the latter being the more important takeaway.

Monthly sales posted a 0.3% gain, beating expectations of a 0.2% rise with Feb’s surprisingly firm 0.8% gain marked up to a 0.9%. Annual growth lifted from 3.2%yr to 3.5%yr.

That’s where the good news ends though. The wash up for the quarter as a whole showed all of these gains in nominal sales were due to higher prices with sales volumes declining.

Real retail sales dipped 0.1% in Q1, coming in well below consensus expectations of a 0.3% gain with the quarter on a par with the flat result in Q4. Annual growth has slowed to 1.1%yr but with a cumulative gain of just 0.2% over the last three quarters is in danger of dropping below 1%yr next quarter.

Retail volume results materially weaker than expected: Westpac's Matthew Hassan

The undershoot vs expectations was due to a stronger than expected rise in retail prices which rose, up +0.8%qtr vs +0.7%qtr in Q4. The sub-category detail shows a particularly big rise in food prices (+1.4%qtr vs 1.2% in Q4). Non food retail prices posted a 0.2%qtr gain.

The detail also points to a material slowing in sales across sub-categories associated with ‘big ticket’ discretionary spend, consistent with a wealth effect drag from the housing market correction. In particular, household goods retail volumes declined 0.6% in the quarter to be flat over the year, a marked slowdown on the 5.4%yr growth seen this time last year. Department stores also recorded a contraction, sales volumes down 1.2%qtr, and –0.7%yr. Other non food categories, mostly ‘small ticket’ discretionary, recorded small gains for the quarter and over the year. Cafes and restaurants were the only bright spot, recording a 1%qtr gain in Q1 to be up 1.4%yr.

Retail volume results materially weaker than expected: Westpac's Matthew Hassan

By state, NSW was the only state to post a gain in Q1, up 0.6%qtr, but was coming off a bigger 1.1%qtr fall in Q4, annual sales growth slowing to just 0.9%yr. Results across the other states were: Vic –0.3%qtr, +2.3%yr; Qld –0.1%qtr, +1.5%yr; SA –0.4%qtr, –0.4%yr; WA –0.6%qtr, –0.7%yr and Tas –0.9%qtr, +1.7%yr. The broad based weakness in the quarter suggests that it is not just about spillovers from the correction in housing markets which to date has been largely confined to NSW, Vic and WA.

Looking by channel, online sales look to have posted a 0.7% gain in the March month, annual growth slowing to 'just' 12.7%yr, a subdued gain for this segment.

Overall the March retail report points to downside risks to the wider consumer spending estimates in the March quarter GDP, the headwinds that emerged in the second half of last year clearly carrying into 2019. 

MATTHEW HASSAN is a Senior Economist for Westpac.

Read full article 'Australian retail sales Q1'.

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