April retail sales remain healthy, but pandemic pain continues for some

Friday 21 May 2021

Preliminary figures released today by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) show $31 billion was spent in stores and online in April – an increase of 1.1% compared to March and up 25.1% on the same time last year.

Australian Retailers Association (ARA) CEO Paul Zahra said whilst comparisons against the 2020 lockdown period are complex, retail trade remains healthy overall, and Australia’s economy continues to bounce back from the worst of the pandemic.

“The figures released today show that retail continues on a positive trajectory. Sales increased 1.1% on the previous month and are up 25.1% compared to the same time last year – however, that figure is inflated due to the lockdowns and restrictions we experienced in April 2020, and when Australia’s economy largely grinded to a halt,” Mr Zahra said.

“Whilst today’s results are pleasing, it doesn’t paint a complete picture of what the retail sector is going through. Our recovery is uneven, and some businesses are in a better position than others.

“CBD retailers, particularly small businesses, along with travel retailers are our biggest concern. They continue to suffer through the absence of international students, tourists, and city office workers.

“International border closures are also contributing to Australia’s skills shortage, which is front of mind for many retail businesses, who are struggling to fill positions due to a lack of skilled migrants.”

Figures from ARA’s strategic partner Mastercard also show positive signs for retail spending.

According to the April Mastercard SpendingPulse™, there was a 178.5% increase in sales for clothing retailers compared to a year earlier. This reflects just how much spending dried up in fashion when Australians were locked down in April 2020 and how some of the discretionary categories are bouncing back, recording its sixth straight month of positive year on year growth. SpendingPulse provides insights into retail spending trends, reporting on national retail sales across all payment types in select markets around the world.

Other categories of retail seeing year-on-year growth according to Mastercard’s SpendingPulse are department stores (up 42.2%) and household goods (up 6.9%). Food retailing was down 10.3%, which reflects supermarkets and grocery stores cycling the elevated levels of panic buying from a year earlier.

“Retail sales are tracking well overall, but we know that not everyone is benefiting from the same levels of buoyant spending. Our economic recovery will remain uneven as long as international borders remain closed,” Mr Zahra said.

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