NZ 1Q quarterly retail sales up 0.1% as weaker fuel and vehicle sales weigh

Eftpos machine on counter at Unity Books bookshop, payments, retail. Photo by Lynn Grieveson

New Zealand retail sales rose in the March quarter but were lower than expected on weaker fuel and motor vehicle and parts retailing after a biosecurity threat crimped car imports.

Retail sales volumes rose 0.1 percent in the March quarter on an adjusted basis for seasonal and price effects, from a revised 1.4 percent gain in the fourth quarter, Statistics New Zealand said. Economists had expected retail sales volumes to lift 1 percent.

"Overall, retail spending in the first three months of the year was relatively flat despite rising job numbers, high migration, and record international tourism," Stats NZ said. Of the 15 retail industries, seven had higher sales volumes in the March 2018 quarter, and eight experienced lower sales volumes.

Core industries sales rose 0.6 percent in the latest quarter. Of the two excluded industries, fuel sales fell 2.1 percent, its third quarterly decline, while motor vehicles and parts fell 0.9 percent.

"It seems to be the automotive part that was on the weak side, fewer cars and less fuel at least in the volume area for the quarter seasonally adjusted," said BNZ economist Doug Steel. He said it may be related to the impact of the brown marmorated stink bug, which was detected on some cargo ships, causing delays in car arrivals.

Car sales were held up in the quarter when the Ministry for Primary Industries turned away four bulk carriers from Japan carrying 10,000-to-12,000 new and used vehicles after the stink bug was discovered on board, raising fears the pest could hit the local primary sector. MPI has introduced new screening measures for all used vehicles prior to export.

Stats NZ said the largest industry increase came in electrical and electronic goods retailing, which lifted 5.4 percent. Clothing, footwear and accessories, however, fell 5 percent.

Sales of food and beverage services fell 1.1 percent after rising 3.9 percent in the prior quarter. Liquor sales rose 2.8 percent. Sales at supermarket and grocery stores rose 1 percent while specialised food fell 1.2 percent.

Accommodation rose 1.2 percent while hardware, building and garden supply store sales fell 0.6 percent.

In actual terms, the value of total retail sales rose 3.4 percent to $23.1 billion in the March quarter versus the same quarter a year earlier.

According to Steel the weaker-than-expected number adds more caution to gross domestic product estimates for the quarter. The March quarter data is due June 21, according to Stats NZ.