20 March 2019: Retail sales weakened in 2018, with real retail turnover expanding by 2.2% over the year, weakness that is expected to extend into 2019, as housing market pressures and lacklustre income growth hurt household budgets.
According to Deloitte Access Economics’ latest quarterly Retail Forecasts subscriber report (Q1 2019):
Deloitte Access Economics partner and Retail Forecasts principal author, David Rumbens, said: “Australia’s retail sector has been sustaining a reasonable rate of sales growth in an unconventional way – not so much from income growth, but leveraging off consumers’ willingness to spend.
“That willingness to spend has been supported by very strong asset price growth, creating a massive windfall for one set of consumers. But for another, and largely separate group, they have been associated with a significant lift in debt commitments.”
In recent years, both have run down their rate of savings from labour income, to support consumer spending at a faster pace of growth than it rightly should have achieved, given the economic fundamentals. Overall consumer spending growth over the past five years has averaged 2.5% per annum, but growth is household disposable income has only averaged 1.9%.
“That difference is a fair chunk of change, and it’s fair to say that many retailers have only survived the last few years because we’ve lived beyond our means. But that ship has now sailed,” Rumbens said.
“Housing gains have dried up, and there are question marks over the sharemarket as well. Labour income growth is good, but not good enough yet to avoid some damage to retail growth in the absence of an excuse to run down savings further.
“And when overall net wealth is heading downwards, it provides a fairly strong incentive for people to be more prudent with their cash.
“That leaves 2019 as retail’s gap year - nursing a hangover before getting ready to move ahead in a year’s time.”
Rumbens said that, like all good gap years, retailers can use the opportunity to position themselves for recovery and success.
“It shouldn’t just be about survival. Retailers should ensure they are focused on competitive advantage, strengthening connections with customers and streamlining operations so that, when broader market growth does return, they are in the best possible position to take advantage of it,” he said.
True for many taking a gap year, a well-timed windfall can be very helpful to get through. For retailers, it is likely to be the Federal election delivering a sugar hit to help get through what would otherwise be a more constrained income environment. It does look like, at this point in time, the 2019-20 Federal budget is heading towards a surplus. But with a Federal election now only weeks away there are likely to be lots of raids from both sides of politics on a pretty modest pot. The government has already proposed personal income tax cuts. Beyond that there is speculation of straight cash handouts, mimicking the response to the GFC in 2008-09. Both of those avenues would translate very quickly into higher rates of retail and other consumer spending, and would no doubt be gratefully received by the sector.
Rumbens said that with asset price trauma expected to have largely worked through they economy by 2020, labour income growth would once again be a key underlying growth driver.
“There is upside pressure on wages, particularly in pockets of hot demand such as infrastructure and digital, and this is expected to continue building through 2019, providing a stronger platform for retail spending into 2020,” he said.
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