COVID-19 delivers both pain and gain for Aussie retailers, ABS figures reveal


Total retail spending plummeted in April as Australia’s COVID-19 lockdowns took hold, with an explosion in e-commerce spending failing to offset unprecedented falls in other discretionary categories.

Retail turnover fell by more than $5.3 billion (17.7%) over April in seasonally adjusted terms, and was down 9.18% year-on-year, Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) figures released on Thursday reveal.

The expected decline, adjusted slightly from preliminary estimates published last month, provides new insight into how the coronavirus crisis has affected what and how Australians buy.

It shows how varied the impact of the pandemic has been on the $358 billion retail sector ⁠— with some categories in freefall while others soar.

With Australians stuck at home, e-commerce sales have exploded, increasing from about 7.1% of total retail sales in March to more than 11% ⁠— or from 13% to 20.5% when food sales are excluded.

That means online retail accounted for more than one in every five dollars spent on non-food goods during April.

Meanwhile, echoing March figures, the biggest decline in April was felt in the clothing, footwear and personal accessories category, which fell 56% as empty shopping centres saw traders miss out on about $1.3 billion in sales versus last year.

Cafes, restaurants and takeaway food services businesses suffered a 52.6% decline in April after trading restrictions forced firms to shut their dining rooms; year-on-year sales fell over 64% or by more than $1.9 billion in seasonally adjusted terms.

But household goods sales remained relatively stable in April after increasing 9.1% in March, and was up 11.3% on last year, as Aussies invested in building and garden supplies.

Similarly, while falling 17.4% against March, food retailing increased 5.5% in April versus last year, indicating that while panic-buying brought forward spending, there are still more Aussies heading to the supermarket.

The ABS has split out food spending to provide a better idea of how the pandemic has changed buying habits.

The figures show spending on non-perishable groceries such as canned meat, pasta, rice and toilet paper fell most severely in April compared to smaller falls in fresh food categories.

Non-perishable goods fell 23.7% in April, while perishable goods were down 15.3% and other products 24.5%.

However, year-on-year spending increased for perishable (up 8.8%), non-perishable (up 5.1%) and all other products (up 2.1%).