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Australian retailers suffer worst quarter in two decades, exports shine

Shoppers walk past a retail store in Australia.

Brendon Thorne | Getty Images

Australia’s retailers are facing a consumption drought as the country’s second biggest state locks down to fight the coronavirus and as data showed sales volumes suffered their biggest plunge in two decades in the second quarter.

Retail sales adjusted for inflation slipped 3.4% in the June quarter, Tuesday’s data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics showed, the steepest decline since the introduction of the goods and services tax in 2000. Analysts were expecting a 3.2% fall in the quarter.

The larger-than-expected drop suggests consumer spending will be a drag on gross domestic product growth in the June quarter.

The sales downturn was driven by cafes & restaurants, off 29.1%, and clothing, footwear and personal accessory, down 22%. There were also losses in food retailing.

The slump in volumes contrasts with value-based retail numbers, with June seeing a solid 2.7% jump in monthly sales and May recording a stellar 16.9% rise as shops, restaurants and pubs fully reopened across large parts of Australia.

Economists warned the outlook was clouded by a second wave of coronavirus infections in the state of Victoria, with weekly spending data by the country’s major banks already showing signs of moderation.

Victoria declared a “state of disaster” this week following a relentless surge in coronavirus infections since late June.

In contrast to retailers, Australia’s exporters have been going gangbusters thanks to demand from China for iron ore and other resources, while imports have been hammered by the lockdowns.

Separate data on Tuesday showed the trade surplus swelled to A$8.2 billion in June, taking the total for the second quarter to a whopping A$23.4 billion.

Exports rose 3% in June underpinned in part by sharply rising prices for iron ore and gold, providing a windfall to miners’ earnings and government tax receipts.

Exports to China alone hit an historic high of A$14.6 billion for the month, bringing the rolling 12-month total to A$151 billion.

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