In 2012, Australians spent $256.6 billion offline and $12.8 billion online, illustrating just how small the ecommerce slice of the pie remains (about 5%). But while the balance of spend still sits heavily in offline retail’s favour, it was a tough year for brick-and-mortar specialists, with Christmas spend faltering to end a year in which growth barely eclipsed the inflation rate.
At a number of points throughout the year, growth in online retail sales stood at around 10 times that of traditional retail, leaving the momentum firmly in ecommerce’s court.
Across both however, trend figures show growth stalled in December. Based on seasonally adjusted figures from the ABS, which remove the influence of events like Christmas and variations in each month’s length and composition of trading days, offline sales in December were 0.2% lower than November, and tracked a mere 2.3% higher than the same month in 2011 alongside an inflation rate of 2.2%. Raw ABS figures, however, show that spend in December was 34.7% up on November and 0.8% up on the same period the year prior.
For online retail, which still only accounts for 5.8% of total spend (excluding cafés, restaurants and takeaway food for a like-to-like comparison), the year ended with a return to high growth levels after a dip in the first half of the year, although December, at 23% year-on year-growth, fell below November’s peak. NAB’s Online Retail Sales Index suggests higher spend in November is seasonal in the lead up to Christmas as shoppers buy earlier to ensure parcels arrive in time for 25 December.
- Based on seasonally adjusted ABS ‘Retail Trade’ figures and NAB’s ‘Online Retail Sales Index’. The lines show the change compared to the same period in 2011.
The retail sector continues to pin fluctuations on month to month events, such as interest rate cuts, tax hikes, and other news of economic woes. Household budgets were stretched to the limit in the lead up to Christmas, says executive director of the Australian Retailer’s Assocation (ARA), Russell Zimmerman.
“Retailers were hoping the December interest rate cut might have saved the festive season, but the rate cut wasn’t passed on and other cost pressures had accumulated.”
However, how quickly and for how long these events impact on consumer confidence remains unclear. Consumer confidence surveys regularly fail to register upswings in sentiment following news of rate cuts and other alleviating factors, as seen in January’s Westpac-Melbourne Institute ‘Index of Consumer Sentiment’ which stagnated despite news of growth.
Amid the struggling brick-and-mortar landscape, there were winners and losers
Hardest hit throughout the year were household goods retailers and department stores, both of which experienced multiple periods of negative year-on-year growth throughout 2012.
Clothing, footwear and personal accessory retailers also struggled throughout much of the year, apart from a relatively sustained period of strength around the middle of the year.
On the winner’s side sat food and liquor retailing and cafes, restaurants and takeaway food outlets. In December, they closed with year-on-year growth of 4.4% and 5.3% respectively.
- Note: Figures based year-on-year comparison of seasonally adjusted ABS Retail Trade figures. ‘Other retailing’ not shown on chart.
The spend data reinforces key points both old and new around how people spend.
Muted spend appears to be the new normal, particularly for consumer goods. The cautious mindset of the past few years continues to prevail against news that once would have spurred optimism. Not even the rate cut on December 4 and the stimulant of Christmas could spur the elevated levels of spend in December that retailers hoped for.
But that’s not to say people aren’t spending. Increased spend on restaurants and cafes supports the shift from consumables to experiences, a trend widely discussed over the past few years, as well as more recent reports that Australians are getting out and about again, reversing the long-standing trend towards eating and entertaining at home.