Spending on credit and debit cards fell in March as New Zealanders spent less on big-ticket items like appliances, electronics and hardware.

Seasonally-adjusted card spending fell 0.3 per cent in March after rising 0.6 per cent in February and 2 per cent in January, Stats NZ said.

The decline from February was largely attributed to the fall in durables purchases, down 1.9 per cent, or $26 million. Spending on apparel fell $9m, or 2.9 per cent. In the other direction, spending on consumables lifted 0.5 per cent, or $11m, while spending on fuel was up 0.7 per cent, or $4.2m.

"Spending on groceries, fuel, and other necessities was up in the March month, while spending on more discretionary items such as appliances, electronics, and new clothing was down," retail statistics manager Sue Chapman said.


ASB Bank senior economist Jane Turner said the warm March weather may have weighed on apparel. Spending on durables will likely receive a "second wind" later this year as she expects a recent surge in residential building consents to translate into an increased number of new homes ready to be furnished later this year.

Core retail spending, excluding fuel and vehicle spending, fell 0.2 per cent after a 0.7 per cent rise in February.

In actual terms, total retail spending using electronic cards was $5.6 billion versus $5.1b in February. On the year, spending was 0.7 per cent higher. Core retail spending was $4.8b versus $4.4b a month earlier. On the year it was up 2.0 per cent.

Credit card transactions continued to make up more than half of the total at 54 per cent in March but were down slightly from February when they made up 54.5 per cent of the total.

Calendar 2018 was the first time credit card transactions were a bigger proportion of transactions than debit cards.

February data from the Reserve Bank showed that New Zealanders had $7.428b outstanding on credit cards in February, up 2.8 per cent from a year earlier.

In the March quarter, however, total retail card spending rose a seasonally adjusted 1 per cent after a 0.3 per cent decrease in the December 2018 quarter. Core retail spending lifted 1.6 per cent from the December quarter when it lifted 0.6 per cent.

"The weak result in March follows a robust start to the year and on the whole retail spending growth was robust over the March quarter," ASB's Turner said.


Overall, she said the outlook for retail spending remains "finely balanced."

Tourism spending is likely to continue to grow, albeit at a more modest pace than seen in previous years. Meanwhile, consumer demand remains supported by the tight labour market, historically low retail borrowing rates, and the government's Families Package.

"However, the soft Auckland housing market, low wage growth and rising petrol prices may limit the pace of household spending growth going forward."