By Wayne Cole
SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australian retail sales surged by the most on record in March as a lockdown for the coronavirus spurred panic buying of food and other staples, perhaps saving the entire economy from a damaging contraction in the first quarter.
Sales will likely plunge back in April due to strict social distancing rules and the closure of many businesses, but the boost to the first quarter was still timely.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics on Wednesday reported its preliminary estimate of retail sales jumped 8.2% seasonally adjusted in March, from February.
That beat the previous record rise of 8.1% from 2002 when consumers brought forward purchases ahead of a goods and services tax.
The increase was far larger than any economist had forecast and lifted sales to an all-time high of A$30 billion ($18.86 billion). Sales were up a hefty A$2.28 billion on February, implying an addition to gross domestic product (GDP) of around 0.5 percentage points.
That unexpected windfall could keep growth positive, albeit temporarily. Most analysts had thought GDP would shrink modestly in Q1, ahead of a much more savage decline this quarter as the shutdown caused massive job losses and economic dislocation.
Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) Governor Philip Lowe on Tuesday warned economic output could fall 10% in the first half of the year, easily the harshest contraction since the Great Depression.
Yet consumer panic may just have rescued the first quarter. The lockdown, which began in mid-March, sparked a 23.5% jump in sales for the food industry, with supermarkets and grocery stores selling an extra A$2.2 billion in goods.
Monthly turnover doubled for products such as toilet and tissue paper, flour, rice and pasta between February and March. Turnover for canned food, medicinal products and cleaning goods increased by more than 50%.
“These preliminary figures indicate unprecedented demand in March in the Food retailing industry, with strong sales across supermarkets, liquor retailing and other specialized food,” the ABS said in a statement.
The rise in supermarket sales reached a peak in mid-March before leveling off at the end of the month, the ABS said.
Another gainer was electrical and hardware as consumers rushed to buy the equipment for home offices.
Not so fortunate were cafes and restaurants as most were shut as part of the pandemic fight, while clothing and department stores were badly hit by social distancing rules.
The final ABS estimate of retail sales is due on May 6.
(Reporting by Wayne Cole; Editing by Shri Navaratnam)