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Preliminary March +8.2% retail figures fuelled by panic buying

March retail figures fuelled by consumer stockpiling

Australian retail turnover rose 8.2% in March 2020, seasonally adjusted, according to preliminary retail trade figures released yesterday by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). This is the strongest seasonally adjusted rise ever published in the Retail Trade publication, surpassing an increase of 8.1% in June 2000 when households brought forward expenditure ahead of the GST implementation. The full impact of the downturn in sales will be evident in April which will be reflective of the increased social distancing measures and the fall in consumer sentiment. 

These preliminary figures, which will be subject to revision with the final monthly estimate published 6 May, 2020 in Retail Trade, Australia (Cat no 8501.0), indicate unprecedented demand in March in the food retailing industry, with strong sales across supermarkets, liquor retailing and other specialised food.

Additional analysis indicates monthly turnover doubled for products such as toilet and tissue paper, and rice and pasta. In addition to food retailing, sales were also strong in retail industries selling items related to home offices, technology and electrical items like freezers.

The rises were slightly offset by strong falls in industries including cafes, restaurants and takeaway food services, and clothing, footwear and personal accessory retailing, which were impacted by new social distancing regulations introduced in March.

Analysis of supermarket and grocery store scanner data shows that monthly retail turnover for perishable groceries and all other groceries increased in original terms by 21.6% and 35.6% respectively in March compared to February. Monthly turnover doubled for products such as toilet and tissue paper, flour, rice and pasta between February and March. While monthly turnover for canned food, medicinal products and cleaning goods increased by more than 50%. The rise in supermarket retail turnover reached a peak in mid-March before levelling off at the end of the month.

Figure 1: March 2020 Preliminary Retail Sales – Retail turnover, current prices, seasonally adjusted, percentage change

The National Retail Association (NRA) has said that while the preliminary retail trade figures from the ABS for March represent the largest jump in sales on record, it will be followed by a massive fall in turnover from April onwards.

NRA CEO Dominique Lamb said that the March preliminary figures needed to be put into context given the impact COVID-19 has had since then.

Lamb said “March saw the peak in panic buying in supermarkets, particularly for items such as toilet paper, rice and pasta. Today’s report also shows a nosedive in sales for cafes, restaurants, takeaway food services, and clothing,”

“It would also seem that the panic buying peak is behind us, so supermarkets are likely to see a downwards correction in their sales from now on. This remains an unprecedented economic challenge and struggling retailers need as much support as possible from governments at all levels to survive the COVID-19 crisis”, she said.

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