Canadian retail has one of its weakest Q4s ever

Last year was bad for retail sales, and analyst Ed Strapagiel says more declines could be in store.

After several consecutive reports warning that 2018 would be a bad year for retail sales, Statistics Canada’s year-end numbers have confirmed those fears.

The most recent assessment of those numbers by retail analyst Ed Strapagiel finds that retail sales grew by only 2.7% in 2018 versus the year before. On the heels of a strong 2017 that had growth of 7.1% for the year, 2018 marked the second-lowest growth year of the last six. Total retail sales increased only 0.8% year-over-year in Q4 2018, making it “one of the weakest fourth quarters ever.”

What’s more, retail growth may well continue to decline for some time. Strapagiel’s work includes an analysis of three-month and twelve-month trend lines; currently, the shorter term three-month trend is tracking below the underlying twelve-month trend, meaning sales growth is expected to continue slowing down.

Sales in the food and drug sector ended the year up 1.3%, with modest growth of 2% year-over-year in Q4 2018. In supermarkets and other grocery stores, which account for more than half of the food and drug category, sales increased 0.4% over 2018. Q4 alone showed stronger growth, at 1.8% for the quarter. Meanwhile, sales in health and personal care stores were up a paltry 0.1% for the quarter.

Sales growth in store merchandise continued to follow the pattern of decline seen throughout 2018. Results for Q4 show an uptick of 1.3% year-over-year, below the 3.2% gains seen over the course of the entire year. Moreover, Strapagiel notes the three- and twelve-month trend lines could indicate further weakness in 2019.

Among the segments that were hit the hardest in 2018 were sporting goods, hobby, book and music stores (down 1.2% for the year) and shoe stores (down 0.6%). Furniture stores (up 0.6%) and home furnishings stores (up 0.7%) did not fare great, either. Meanwhile, miscellaneous stores arose as the segment’s top performer, with sales growth of 9.4% in 2018.

As noted in previous reports, part of that strength can be attributed to the addition of cannabis shops, whose sales reached $151.5 million for the year, though stores were only open a few months. The impact of cannabis retail sales is expected to push the segment even higher in 2019.

Finally, Strapagiel reports that automotive and related sales is “suffering from a double whammy of lower retail sales at new car dealers and lower gas prices, and these trends appear to be accelerating.” The sector performed well over the entire year, with a recorded gain of 3.3%. However, sales growth dropped 0.7% in Q4 alone. And again here, the three- and twelve-month trends point to a sustained downward trajectory for the sector.

In 2018, sales growth was up 0.5% for new car dealers (down 0.9% in Q4), up 7.2% in used car dealers and up 7.3% in automotive parts, accessories and tire stores. Gasoline station sales rose 7.9% for the year, with most of that coming during the first half of 2018.

Ecommerce represented 2.9% of overall retail sales in 2018 (compared to the 20.4% growth seen in 2017) and were up 14.7% in Q4.