Business Maverick

BAD FOR BUSINESS

South Africa’s retail sales dip 1.3% in October

(Photo: Leila Dougan)

After rebounding from July’s crash in August and September, South African retail trade sales fell 1.3% in October compared with the previous month. It’s a bad omen for economic growth prospects in the year’s final stretch.

The month-on-month dip came after monthly rebounds of 4.9% in August and 5.1% in September, according to Statistics South Africa. Momentum was gaining pace after the 11.2% slide in the awful month of July when the sector was hammered as shops were looted and burned to the ground during the worst unrest since the end of apartheid. 

It signals a bad start to the fourth quarter (Q4) after data on Tuesday showed the economy contracted by a bigger-than-expected 1.5% in Q3. The economy should still grow this quarter, but its pace may be more sluggish than many had anticipated. 

Still, some analysts see trade in the retail sector picking up steam. 

“We expect to see an improvement in Q4. November will see the ‘Black Friday’ effect, with many shoppers frontloading their festive season purchases to take advantage of the specials on offer. Moreover, retailers should see ongoing consumer demand in December,” Jee-A van der Linde of Oxford Economics Africa said in a note on the data. 

Compared with October last year, retail trade sales rose 1.8%, but that is hardly a surprise as 2020 was such a brutal year for the economy. Pharmaceuticals and medical goods, cosmetics and toiletries lead the way, with brisk year-on-year growth of 14.8%. That may just be a sign that people are returning to their doctors for non-Covid ailments and getting prescriptions. It is not a sign of health for the wider sector. 

Luckily, the emergence of Omicron and the fourth wave has not (yet) triggered more stringent lockdowns, a state of affairs that would hit the retail sector. 

Still, the festive season might not bring all that much cheer to retailers. 

Unemployment is at a record high of 34.9%, the central bank has started hiking rates (though they remain low) and load shedding is disrupting smaller operators who lack back-up sources of power. 

Global supply shortages mean some items are not reaching South African shelves, and inflation is starting to price some consumer goods out of the reach of many. 

If the retail sector does not rebound in the last two months of this year, GDP growth forecasts will be trimmed back even further. DM/BM

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