Australia retailers slash prices, shoppers still stay away

By Swati Pandey

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australian retailers suffered another tepid month of sales as consumers, battling stagnant wages and rising utility bills, curbed spending in an outcome that augers poorly for third-quarter economic growth.

Thursday’s data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) showed retail sales were flat in September, a big surprise given analysts had looked for a bounce of 0.4 percent following a shock decline in August.

That left nominal sales down 0.3 percent for the third quarter as a whole, the weakest result since 2010.

Yet, adjusted for inflation they still rose 0.1 percent in the period. Essentially retailers sold more goods but got less money for them.

Indeed, retail prices in the quarter fell 0.4 percent, the biggest drop since 2004.

The Australian dollar skidded about a quarter of a cent following the data to be down 0.4 percent at $0.7683, leaving behind a more than one-week high of $0.7729 set on Thursday.

Annual retail growth is now crawling at 1.4 percent, levels last seen during the global financial crisis.

“The picture from the report is an unambiguously bad one for retailers who are cutting prices but finding no traction with volumes,” said Westpac economist Matthew Hassan.

“The picture is not quite as bad for consumers who get some advantage from lower prices and do not look to be cutting back on consumption quite as sharply as feared.”

Australia’s retail sector had shown some signs of life earlier in the year, but that recovery was short-lived as sluggish wages and household incomes sapped spending power.

Friday’s data implies a risk private consumption didn’t add much to overall economic growth in the September quarter. It also casts a shadow on the Reserve Bank of Australia’s (RBA) forecasts for the A$1.7 trillion economy to grow at 3 percent over the next two years.


The RBA has long feared ballooning debt in Australia’s red-hot property sector was limiting consumers’ ability to spend elsewhere in the economy, one reason it has held rates at an all-time low 1.50 percent since August 2016.

“The low inflationary pulse, which is reflecting soft wages growth and ongoing discounting in the retail sector, underpins our view that a rate hike is still a long way off,” said Gareth Aird, senior economist at Commonwealth Bank of Australia.

Friday’s ABS figures showed hefty falls in the Northern Territory and Western Australia, with Tasmania and South Australia rebounding after losses the previous month.

In chain volume measures, household goods and department stores led the declines, while food and clothing inched higher.

In a sign of the times, Australia’s biggest department store operator Myer this week cut its growth targets after its quarterly sales fell 2.8 percent.

Beyond retail, things are not nearly so bad. Surveys of businesses report the best conditions since before the global financial crisis and jobs growth has been off the charts.

Data out on Thursday showed dwelling approvals climbed to a seven-month high while Australia boasted its longest run of trade surpluses in more than four decades.

(Reporting by Swati Pandey; Editing by Shri Navaratnam and Eric Meijer)