Consumers spent less at the shops last month than expected and retailers are worried that a continued slowdown in the housing market will keep Kiwis' wallets closed.

Spending on credit and debit cards was flat in September, up 0.1 per cent on August and far below the 0.7 per cent rise bank economists expected.

Core spending - which excludes fuel and vehicles - fell 0.2 per cent, month-on-month.

Money spent on durable goods fell 1.2 per cent, though a 0.8 per cent lift in spending on consumables such as grocery and liquor offset this.


"Consumer spending has cooled significantly in recent months - in fact, the level of card spending is down since the start of the year," Westpac senior economist Michael Gordon said.

"Consumer spending in New Zealand tends to have a strong link with the housing market, and the slowdown in spending is consistent with the cooling in house prices over the last year," he said. "In the absence of a renewed fall in interest rates, we expect the housing market, and therefore growth in consumer spending, to remain subdued over the next couple of years."

ASB economists Nick Tuffley and Mark Smith said election uncertainty and the slowing housing market had both weighed on spending.

"We expect consumers to show restraint over the next month or two until the picture clears," they said.

Wet weather likely contributed to a 1.1 per cent drop in apparel sales.

Retail NZ general manager of public affairs Greg Harford said it was a "bit gloomy out there" for its members. "We've been hearing for the last six months from our members that things have not been going as well out in the market as we would all like to see," he said.

A slump in the housing market was a real worry, he said. "When the housing market is bubbling away, consumers tend to feel pretty confident about investing in their houses so a lot of spending goes on in things like hardware [and] homeware. "Consumers wallets are being increasingly squeezed, there's not so much happening in retail," he said.

Travel overseas is booming, with Kiwis taking holidays abroad in record numbers, but one agent said the election had dampened bookings during the past three weeks.

Commercial director at House of Travel Brent Thomas said while there had been no noticeable impact of slowing house price rises on the travel market, the election and coalition talks had resulted in a pause in some leisure and corporate bookings.

"Hopefully we'll know a result on Thursday and life can get back to normal," Thomas said.

"With the property market there's no correlation at this stage because our numbers are already double digit growth for next year."

About the time of the global financial crisis when property prices did slip travel had been hit, he said.

"It was the only time when we had negative growth in travel from New Zealand since I don't know when."