Retail spending remained weak in January as bushfires devastated many parts of Australia, with days of hazardous smoke pollution across south-eastern states keeping shoppers at home.
Retail trade fell by 0.3 per cent – or $78 million – in January to $27.3 billion, seasonally adjusted, which was worse than the unchanged result the market was expecting.
The January fall follows a downwardly revised slump of 0.7 per cent in December and is yet to reflect the coronavirus panic that set in during February.
January was also the nation’s first back-to-back monthly retail decline since August 2017.
“Bushfires in January negatively impacted a range of retail businesses across a variety of industries” ABS director of quarterly economy wide surveys Ben James said.
“Retailers reported a range of impacts that reduced customer numbers, including interruptions to trading hours and tourism.”
The latest figures were dragged down by a 2.2 per cent fall in department store spending, and 1.1 per cent falls in both the household goods and footwear and personal accessory sectors.
These falls were partially offset by a 0.4 per cent rise in food retailing.
Myer reported a 37 per cent drop in first-half profit on Wednesday. Chief executive John King said consumers were already steering clear of the shops before virus fears emerged – and the worst effects of the COVID-19 outbreak were still to come for retailers.
Treasury secretary Steven Kennedy told a Senate economics committee this week that the virus could slice “at least” 0.5 percentage points from economic growth in Australia in the March quarter, reflecting its impact on tourism, education and the Australian dollar.
The Australian dollar fell from 66.17 US cents to 66.09 US cents within half an hour of the data’s 1130 AEDT release.