Have Australian shoppers again caught out slow-to-move analysts? Just as a few doubters were coming to accept that the retail sales have been better than believed, the Australian Bureau of Statistics this morning reported a surprisingly sharp 0.8% fall in seasonally adjusted retail sales for July this morning, far worse than the market forecast for a rise of 0.2%.

But in reporting the fall, the ABS said it came after a higher than reported rise of 1.2% (up from 1%) in June and 0.6% (down from 0.8%) in May. The more reliable trend series had a rise of 0.4% in July and June (down from 0.5% originally reported) and one of 0.5% in May (unchanged). Seasonally adjusted retail sales last dipped in April when they fell 0.2%. The trend series showed a rise of 0.5% in April, though.

Remember that these figures only capture a portion of online sales, and don’t capture car sales or a lot of other travel expenditure. Offshore online sales are hard to measure, but travel spending should really be covered more broadly in the monthly retail sales data.

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In original terms, retail sales were 4% above the level in July last year, down slightly from the 4.1% rise reported in June.

What drove seasonally adjusted fall? According to the ABS, an unusually large 10.2% fall in sales in department stores. The next biggest was a 2.8% drop in the “other” retailing sector, followed by clothing, footwear and personal accessory retailing (-0.9%).

Department stores and clothing/footwear have been the problem area in retail now for well over a year; they’ve been doing better in recent months (in fact department store spending was up a healthy 3.4% in June), but the July data is a bit of a return to form for those categories, although 10.2% is a mighty fall for DJs, Harvey Norman and Myer.

“These falls were partially offset by rises in household goods retailing (2.4%), cafes, restaurants and takeaway food services (0.3%) and food retailing (0.1%),” the ABS said. Again, that’s what we’ve been seeing for a long time.

The seasonally adjusted fall was across the country, in every state: Queensland led the way among the bigger states with a 1.1% fall; New South Wales had a 0.8% fall (reversing a welcome trend in that state since early in the year), but Western Australia remains the strongest-performing state in trend terms (up 0.5%).

The news will confound the usually gloomy crew on the Fairfax broadsheets, who, aided by Access Economics, finally caught up with the fact that retail sales have been strong for most of this year, just not for their reliable sources such as Gerry Harvey. In a report of the Access report (which is usually glooming and dooming on behalf of some of its retail clients, such as David Jones), Fairfax declared:

“Australians are spending again at restaurants, cafes and department stores but they’re not exactly whistling as they shop, with depressed consumer confidence and entrenched pessimism leading a new report to depict consumers as ‘shopping with a frown’.”

But over at The Australian Financial Review, the same report got the glass half-empty approach: “The jump in retail sales in the first half of 2012 will be short-lived, forecaster Access Economics says.” Well, seeing Access missed the first half jump until this report, so it seems a bit rich that it’s already declaring it over. With this sort of bias, it will be intriguing to watch the analysis in tomorrow’s AFR of the retail sales figures.

The retail data won’t impact on Reserve Bank thinking at tomorrow’s monthly board meeting, which is expected not to move rates. Weak data for manufacturing from China, Japan and South Korea in the past three days will have more of an impact, as it is clear that our three biggest export markets are still slowing, along with India, which reported sluggish second-quarter data late last week as well. Data from the Reserve Bank late last week showed business lending was still growth moderately at just over 4% in July, while home lending grew at an annual 4.9%, a record low since the RBA started collecting and reporting this data in the mid-1970s and further testament that residential construction is in a deep hole.

Weak company profits and wages, plus a rise in business inventories in the three months to June will probably mean that second-quarter GDP growth is a little weaker than forecast when reported on Wednesday. The current forecast is for a rise of 0.8%, quarter on quarter, for an annual rate of 3.7%, down from 1.4% for March (will it be revised?) and an annual rate of 4.3%. But government finance and the current account data due out tomorrow will have a big influence on the size of the growth figure. Stay tuned: this will be a big week for data.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief
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