Australia’s retail sales growth can’t last. Here’s how to prepare for it


The latest retail sales figures are really quite incredible. According to the Bureau of Statistics (ABS), retail sales rose by 0.6 per cent from August to September, the same figure as the month prior. It almost beggars belief considering interest rates have increased seven times since May with the Reserve Bank recently announcing another 0.25 per cent hike, adding an estimated $74 a month to repayments for Aussies with a $500,000 loan. The folks leveraged to the hilt with a $1 million mortgage

tgage are set to fork out an extra $149 a month. 

Amazingly, the savage string of rate rises so far this year doesn’t seem to be affecting the shopping habits of Aussies overall, although there has been a dip in sales figures for household goods (down 0.8 per cent) and department stores (down 0.4 per cent). But clothing, footwear and accessories are up 2 per cent, food retailers are up 1 per cent while cafes and restaurants are also enjoying a 1.3 per cent bump. How much longer these numbers can defy gravity is the real question.

Aussie consumers appear to be still spending those cash reserves built up over the Covid years, engaging in some sort of short-term gratification, turning to retail therapy to deal with the news of impending crises. 

All this shopping – as much as retailers love it – has been trucking on despite prices rising sharply, with the annual inflation rate climbing to 7.3 per cent in Q3, and now predicted to go to 8 per cent by the end of the year, according to the RBA. That’s setting a new high benchmark forecast, and the highest inflation has been in the country since Q2 1990. 

Paradoxically, we are all aware that means just one thing: more interest rate rises. While the spending continues, so will the savage circle of rate hikes.

If you are one of those with said Covid reserves, your wallet might not be feeling all this. Yet. But get prepared because it is coming – you know it’s coming, right? With petrol prices back on the rise after the return of the 22-cent fuel excise and the government putting the fear of God into us all by saying power costs will shoot up 60 per cent in the next two years, the pinch is coming for all of us, one way or another. 

My tip is that retail sales figures in the next couple of months will start to reflect this. 

In a month’s time, the “no-help” budget will have landed. Those hoping for support were sadly left out – unless you have kids in childcare, and even then, it’s a fair way off. There’s plenty of talk in major capital cities about falling house prices which is another psychological barrier to consumer spending, and rents are rising astronomically at the same time.

All this airtime devoted to negative news must take its toll on retail sales/discretionary spending at some point. In my view, that point is now.

If your business fits into the discretionary spend categories, you will already be looking to the traditional summer selling season with trepidation.

So what can you do to protect your business as more and more people curb their spend?

You could try the Coles strategy of locking in a bunch of prices until January, seemingly by strong-arming suppliers to reduce costs. With the fuel prices impacting transport costs, I’m not sure what magic lamp suppliers are meant to rub to make that happen. 

Frankly, there’s not much you can do beyond trimming the sails, hunkering down, and riding out the storm.

There are plenty of brand and advertising gurus that will tell you to keep advertising, that stopping will mean you lose your share of voice in the market and you’ll leave the door open for your competitors. I’d say it’s a little more complex than that. 

Regardless of the size of your business, now is the time to review your marketing plans. Trim anything that has not proved effective in the past. This is not a time for experimentation. Follow the data, both past and current. Look at what has worked for you over the past three years. While this is a whole new kettle of fish, there are plenty of lessons to be learned from your approach during Covid.

During these uncertain times, you need to be more nimble and agile than ever. Being tuned in to your local catchment areas, following the mood of the grassroots consumer will be key. Follow the Facebook groups and listen to your customers as they visit your store. Don’t wait until you see the new cautious behaviours reflected in the next set of numbers because by then it’s already happened and it’s too late to react.

I hate to say it but the outlook for retail sales as we head towards Christmas could be about as bleak as the weather in Melbourne on Cup Day. 

The smart and agile retailers will keep their feet dry at the expense of the complacent ones who will look at history that’s already been made in numbers that lag reality. 

I know which group I’d rather be in.


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