Retail sales growth on track to hit ten-year low

November sales may have jumped slightly from October, but "one month does not a trend make," notes analyst Ed Strapagiel.

Retail sales have been slumping for a while, so retail analyst Ed Strapagiel’s latest assessment of Statistics Canada data may not come as a surprise: it’s now “virtually certain” that retail sales growth over 2019 will end at a ten-year low.

Over the three-month period ending in November, retail sales grew a paltry 0.7%. As Strapagiel notes, the media reported a modest boost in November sales, but that assessment was based on comparing results with October numbers, which were particularly weak. “For retail sales numbers,” he writes, “one month does not a trend make.”

The latest figures bring Canada’s retail sales growth to just 1.5% after the first 11 months of 2019. Again, the analyst notes that it’s important to bear in mind that an uptick of roughly 3.5% is required to match population growth and price inflation.

Strapagiel predicts the skies are unlikely to clear anytime soon, as the three-month trend line (representing the three-month sales growth average) has remained below the underlying 12-month trend, which has been on a steady decline since peaking in late 2017.

Low growth in the food and drug sector, starting in mid-2019, is “probably the most responsible for the recent deterioration of overall retail sales,” the analyst notes. Year-over-year sales growth was just 0.4% for the three-month period ending in November, while retail sales at grocery stores gained only 1% and convenience store sales tanked 7.3% over the same period. Health and personal care stores, meanwhile, saw a bump of 1.7%.

Store merchandise sales grew 1.1% over the three months, marking a 2.1% gain for the year-to-date period. But there are still a few “problem areas” within the sector, according to Strapagiel. Over three months, electronics and appliance stores dropped a huge 12.3%, and shoe stores, home furnishings retailers, sporting goods, hobby, book and music stores all reported declines of varying levels. Clothing stores dipped modestly into the black, at 0.6% growth. And continuing a trend seen since cannabis legalization, miscellaneous stores (which include cannabis shops) saw the largest gains of the sector at 9.9%.

Meanwhile, automotive and related sales have so far seen little-to-no growth in 2019, thanks to a “double whammy” of weak automobile sales and lower prices at the pump. Excluding sales at gasoline stations – which dropped 2.7% over three-months – Strapagiel pegs total Canadian retail sales growth at 2.2% year-to-date instead of 1.5%.

Finally, ecommerce sales (which include pure-play operators and brick-and-mortar stores’ online sales) accounted for 3.4% of overall for the 12-months ending in November 2019. Ecommerce sales alone grew 15.9% over three months, compared to 0.7% for location-based retail alone.