Retailers face cold, hard winter

Adele Shevel

Adele Shevel

Retailers received a short-term reprieve on January 31 when the Reserve Bank opted not to increase the repo rate - a fact made obvious this week when statistics showed the sector increased sales by 2,5percent in February.

The bad news is that economists do not expect a sustained rebound and forecast the general trend in retail sales to remain weak.

Global investment bank Citigroup said real (inflation-adjusted) retail sales growth "significantly exceeded forecasts" of a modest decline in February, but cautioned against reading too much into the data.

The bank said it doubted that the rebound was sustainable.

The prognosis among retailers is equally grim. "What we do know is there is a consumer slowdown," said Simon Susman, chief executive of Woolworths.

The retailer is waiting for the cold weather to kick in.

"People buy warm clothes when it's cold, but are delaying purchases because of the tough environment," said Susman.

He said that food sales had been "reasonably steady" for most of the year, but warned that food inflation was "on a long-term sustained upward trend".

Massmart chief executive Grant Pattison said he was pleased that retail sales had grown at all. "We can certainly see that increased interest rates have curbed retail growth. High levels of inflation are a problem for consumers."