Finance Consumer This is what we are buying online as retail sales surge
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This is what we are buying online as retail sales surge

A woman wearing a mask holding shopping bags
Online retail sales are booming. Photo: Getty
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Australians feasted on takeaway food, upgraded their wardrobes and relied on games and toys to break the monotony of lockdown life in July.

Data released by National Australia Bank on Thursday shows online retail sales jumped 6.7 per cent over the month, as Australians sought entertainment and swapped dining out for eating in.

Online retail sales were up 62.6 per cent year on year, with spending on games and toys (+15.2 per cent), fashion (+12.7 per cent), and takeaway food (+11.2 per cent) leading the monthly surge.

The figures, which are based on NAB transaction data, do not capture the impact of Stage 4 restrictions in Victoria but include the effects of Stage 3 restrictions introduced in Greater Melbourne on July 8.

NAB chief economist Alan Oster said the Stage 3 restrictions contributed heavily to the online sales boom, as shoppers had little choice but to buy online.

All states except the Northern Territory, however, experienced an uptick – buoyed by stimulus payments and early superannuation withdrawals.

Online sales over the month jumped 16 per cent in Victoria, 3.5 per cent in New South Wales, 2.6 per cent in the Australian Capital Territory, and 2.5 per cent in South Australia.

And the three most populous states comprised just over 80 per cent of total online sales, or slightly above their share of the national population.

“In year-on-year terms, online sales in Victoria are nearly double what they were in the same month in 2019. The state also led growth in each [retail] category in the month,” Mr Oster said.

“The strong result for Victoria was, like the national result, driven by games and toys, and fashion.”

Unlike the national result, though, department stores were the third-biggest growth driver in Victoria, with takeaway food coming in fourth.

“Victoria also recorded strong growth in homewares and appliances, with SA and NT the only others to record growth for this category,” Mr Oster said.

On a national level, all eight retail categories experienced month-on-month growth in July, which supports earlier evidence that the retail sector is holding up better than expected.

(The retail categories are: Fashion, department stores, homewares and appliances, media, personal and recreational, grocery and liquor, games and toys, and takeaway food.)

The Australian Bureau of Statistics reported on August 21 that overall retail sales jumped 3.3 per cent in July and were 12.2 per cent higher than the same time last year.

The figures are based on preliminary data, but line up with weekly transaction data from Commonwealth Bank that shows consumer spending in many states is higher today than before the pandemic.

This is partly because states other than Victoria have eased restrictions ahead of schedule, and partly because the total amount of government stimulus has so far exceeded the total loss in national household income.

This last point was reflected in Wednesday’s national accounts, which showed household disposal income increased by 2.2 per cent over the June quarter.

But economists are concerned about what happens when support measures are scaled back at the end of September.

Grattan Institute household finances program director Brendan Coates said the statistic that worried him most was NAB’s revelation that 20 per cent of customers who have taken up mortgage holidays have suffered at least a 50 per cent decline in their wages since April.

This suggests many will be forced to sell their homes whenever deferrals end, which would drag down house prices and weigh on consumer spending.

And although JobKeeper has put a floor under consumer spending and maintained an important connection between employers and employees, it remains to be seen how many of these jobs will survive once the support is removed.

“It’s a bit like a bandage,” Mr Coates said.

“It’s not until you take it off that you see the wound.”