The end of the retail recession?

There are cursory signs of a recovery in key areas of the retail sector. But with stimulus and compensation cash awash in the economy, the upticks may yet prove to be an aberration.

Last month, when National Australia Bank issues its index of online retail sales for the year to May, it appeared even e-tailers were experiencing the effects of a broader retail recession, with the growth rate for online sales continuing the gradual slowdown experienced over the course of this year. The latest numbers, however, depict a significantly more positive mood.

It has been evident in the most recent round of annual results from bricks and mortar retailers that something happened quite late in the financial year, with quite discernible upticks in sales and profitability at the tail-end of an otherwise dismal year.

The most interesting results were the 4.6 per cent fourth quarter increase in Woolworths Big W discount department store business, which had been really struggling before that final three months, Target’s comparable store sales growth of 4.5 per cent in that quarter and its Wesfarmers’ sibling Kmart’s 2.2 per cent sales growth. It is the discount department store segment of the market where the retail recession had been most evident.

Today’s NAB online retail sales index showed that online sales growth, which had dropped from 19 per cent year-on-year in March to 14 per cent in May picked up strongly in July, with year-on-year growth of about 25 per cent. NAB chief economist Alan Oster commented that there had been notable growth, not just in online sales, but for traditional bricks and mortar retailers.

That’s consistent with what the Reserve Bank minutes of its board meeting earlier this month suggested, with the minutes recording that the board noted indications that consumer spending had retained some momentum in the June quarter.

With three 25 basis points cuts and one 50 basis point cut to official interest rates in 10 months it perhaps isn’t surprising that some level of stimulus is starting to flow through to household spending, although that may not be the primary reason for the pick-up in retail sales.

It was, of course, from the middle of May that the Gillard government started splashing vast amounts of cash around as part of its compensation of households for the introduction of the carbon tax. With gambling venues reporting an immediate and significant lift in sales consumers may well have treated those payments as windfalls and simply spent them.

If that were the case, the lift in sales that started in the last quarter of the retailers’ financial year and which, anecdotally at least, has continued into the new financial year could be a short-lived phenomenon.

There are, however, some broader and reasonably encouraging signs that some level of confidence has returned to consumers and businesses, with house prices stabilising and the demand for credit, which had been very subdued, showing signs of life. Maybe it’s because Europe and the continuing prospect of an implosion in Europe haven’t been front page news for some time.

The dive in commodity prices and the shelving of a number of mega mining projects that were on the drawing boards may have an impact on sentiment in the short term, although as that works through the terms of trade and the competition for resources within the domestic economy it might take some pressure off the non-resource sectors and states.

While traditional retailers would be gratified by even a sliver of extra spending in their stores, the increased scale of online spending – $11.7 billion in the year to July according to NAB – and its rising share of total retail sales should lead them to intensify their own efforts to build an online presence.

NAB says that online sales were equivalent to 5.3 per cent of traditional retail spending in the year to July, up from 4.9 per cent in January. Encouragingly for the bricks and mortar retailers pursuing "bricks and clicks" or "omni-channel" strategies, domestic e-tailers dominate the spending, with a 72 per cent share, although NAB says there was a marked pick-up in international sales in July.

Myer’s Bernie Brookes has been saying that, despite their tardy entry to online retailing, the traditional bricks and mortar retail brands will eventually dominate online retailing and that the entrepreneurs that have built the sector so far have "had their day in the sun".

By this time next year we’ll not only know whether the pick-up in retail sales generally was a cash-splash inspired aberration but it ought to be possible to assess whether the attempt by the bricks and mortar retailers to establish a meaningful online presence has gained any traction.

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