Pressure on consumers persists as retail data underwhelms – economists

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Retail sales data for October lifted by a mere 0.3% year-on-year, compared to 0.4% reported in September - reflecting that unemployment, low wage growth and indebtedness continued to undermine consumers' appetite, according to economists.

The largest positive annual growth rates were reported for sales of food, beverages and tobacco in specialised stores - up 4.5%, and household furniture, appliances and equipment - up 3.2%. Retail sales in hardware, paint and glass declined by 2.5%.

Economists believe the data denotes consumers had a strong spending appetite but that they remained indebted and under pressure.

"We believe that consumers may have delayed their purchases in anticipation of big discounts on Black Friday, consistent with our view that households have become more price sensitive and are more inclined to buy goods on special," said FNB senior economist Siphamandla Mkhwanazi.

Mkhwanazi said overall year-to-date retail sales growth continued to depict a muted demand environment, which demonstrates retailers' inability to pass on price increases amid intensified bargain hunting by consumers.

"This is reflected in the persistently low retail inflation readings, which remain below headline inflation levels, averaging just 2.5% year-to-date versus headline inflation of 4.2% over the same period," Mkhwanazi said.

He said while households' appetite for credit remained strong, persistent pressures on disposable income and weakening credit scores narrowed the scope for consumers to take up more debt.

Mkhwanazi however said that there might be an uptick in retail sales heading into the festive season, with consumers taking advantage of discounted pricing.

Investec economist Lara Hodes said the subdued retail inflation reading further showed the plight of retailers, whose margins continue to remain suppressed in a highly competitive environment.

"Indeed, consumers continue to face a myriad of challenges, including, structurally high unemployment rates, amid a sluggish labour market, slowing wage growth and markedly higher administered prices," she added.

Hodes said October's reading continues to indicate the constrained domestic demand environment, weakened by muted economic growth.

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