The tourism and hospitality sector is sounding alarm bells about potential collapse and today's electronic card spending data shows just how dire the situation is.

Card spending on travel fell 53 per cent or $66 million in March versus February. The fall is three times bigger than it was in January 2008 at the start of the global financial crisis.

Spending on food and beverage services, which include cafes, restaurants, takeaway food services, and bars, fell 27 per cent or $238 million in March after a 2 per cent or $17 million increase in February, Stats NZ said.

The gradual closure of all cafes, restaurants, and takeaway outlets took food and beverage spending back to levels seen in 2015.

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Accommodation spending, which includes hotels, motels, and similar units, fell 32 per cent in the month or $69 million, following a 0.2 per cent increase in February.

New Zealand closed its borders to foreign visitors on March 19. Public venues and large gatherings were halted on March 23 when firms were also expected to work from home where possible. The national lockdown has been in place since midnight on March 25.

Total retail spending fell almost 4 per cent in March - the biggest monthly decline ever. The closure of everything except non-essential services means the impact on spending will be worse in April.

"April will likely be weaker still for non-essential retail not able to benefit from online purchases. With social distancing expected to remain, and with the household sector facing sizeable job losses, weakened incomes and balance sheets, it will take a while for the retail sector to rediscover its mojo," ASB Bank senior economist Mark Smith said.

Restaurant Association of New Zealand chief executive Marisa Bidois this week told the parliamentary epidemic response select committee that the industry has shut down completely and is being crippled by ongoing costs.

Today's data showed total retail sales fell by $231 million, or a seasonally adjusted 3.9 per cent, in March from February. That was the biggest fall ever in both percentage and dollar terms, Stats NZ said.

Spending was, however, held up by groceries sales, which jumped by $376 million or 17 per cent in March.

"This is the largest dollar value and percentage increase in grocery sales since the retail card spending series began in 2002," retail statistics manager Sue Chapman said.

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"Supermarkets remain open as an essential business and there have been widespread reports of people stocking up on food as the month progressed," she added.

In actual terms, retail spending using electronic cards totalled $5.7 billion, down $103 million or 1.8 per cent from March 2019.

- BusinessDesk