Retail spending kept climbing in the December 2013 quarter, Statistics New Zealand said today, but not at the rate that economists were expecting.
After adjusting for seasonal effects, the volume of total retail trade sales rose 1.2 per cent in the December 2013 quarter, following on from a small lift of 0.2 per cent in the previous quarter.
The data published this morning shows that of the 15 different retail sectors looked at, nine had higher sales volumes. Those with the biggest increases were: fuel retailing up 5.7pc; clothing, footwear and accessories up 9.9 per cent; recreational goods up 8.6 per cent.
The volume of sales in the core retailing industries (which excludes the vehicle-related industries) rose 0.7 per cent.
Felix Delbruck, senior economist at Westpac Bank said the December retail rebound sales less than expected.
"The surprise was largely due to a surprisingly tepid 0.8 per cent rise in vehicle spending. This category had seen a very strong run over the last few quarters and we had expected more of the same on the back of recent car registration data and the recent rise in the NZ dollar against the yen," he said.
"There were surprising declines in spending on food, accommodation and non-store retailing - the latter two possibly indicating that a strong NZ dollar has been making the going tougher for domestic operators in those categories."
Delbruck said this morning's numbers suggested "some downside risk" to the bank's forecast of a 1.4pc GDP increase in the December quarter, which had assumed "a strong lift in retail spending."
ASB Bank economist Daniel Smith also said this morning's retail data was not as strong as expected, and seemed "somewhat at odds with a whole host of other indicators/drivers of consumer spending. The outlook for spending over 2014 remains very positive. "
"Overall, the result is at odds with improving indicators over the quarter, including merchants' reported sales, consumer confidence and electronic card spending, all of which pointed to a stronger result."
Smith said there was some "bafflement" at the figures, including the weakness reported in supermarket sales.
"Compared to Q4 2012, supermarket sales volumes were up just 0.5 per cent, despite an increase of 4.5 per cent in electronic card spending on consumables and net inwards migration of 22,500 over the year (population growth is a key driver of spending in this category). "
A "perplexing" feature of today's release was a reported 10 per cent quarter-on-quarter fall in "non-store and commission-based sales volumes".
This, said Smith in a statement, included sales at online retailers - which had been a key growth area in the survey over the last couple of years - growing at 18 per cent over the year to September.
"As the structure of this sector is changing rapidly, there may have been changes within the sample, but no explanation is given by StatsNZ."
Smith said the other area of weakness in the retail survey was "also quite surprising."
Accommodation sales volumes fell by 2.4 per cent - the second successive quarter of weak sales in this category, and the year-on-year rate of growth now stood at -2.4%.
"Over 2013, overseas visitor numbers were very strong including Q4, and guest nights figures were about 1.3 per cent higher in Q4 than in the previous quarter according to our seasonally-adjusted estimates."
"Today's data does seem at odds with other indicators/drivers of consumer spending. The main areas of weakness are also quite surprising given the rate of population growth, growth of online spending and visitor arrivals numbers. We would hesitate to read too much into one piece of (often quite volatile) data when other indicators all seem to be telling a somewhat different story. We do expect the drivers of spending to support stronger growth in sales over the coming quarters," said Smith.
Statistics NZ said that when the effect of price changes was included, the total value of retail sales rose 1.2 per cent ($221 million), with sales rising in 11 of the 15 retail industries. For the core retail industries, sales rose 1 per cent ($143 million).
Stats NZ industry and labour statistics manager Blair Cardno said that looking at the longer term picture trends for both total retail sales volumes and values had generally been rising since mid-2009.
In actual terms the value of total retail sales was $19.9 billion in the December 2013 quarter, up 3.9 per cent compared with the same quarter in 2012.