April 21, 2020

NAB Cashless Retail Sales Index: March 2020

NAB cashless retail sales data for March shows wild swings across industries in response to the Coronavirus crisis.

This month we continue our podcast series to accompany the NAB Cashless Retail Sales Index. In this short podcast, you’ll get a quick summary of the major drivers of the index this month. Listen now.


  • Our cashless retail sales data for March shows frankly wild swings across industries in response to the coronavirus crisis. Food and other retail surged while clothing and footwear saw a sharp decline. In aggregate, our data mapping suggests that the ABS retail trade measure will rise 0.2% m/m in March, although given the disparities between retail industries there is little to celebrate overall. ABS retail trade rose 0.5% m/m in February, while we forecast 0.6% (revised to 0.4%).
  • The surge in food was extraordinary: supermarkets and grocery stores were up 34.5% y/y while liquor and other specialised food grew 40.2% y/y as consumers stockpiled supplies. Other retailing also surged, with pharmaceuticals, cosmetics and toiletries up a perhaps unsurprising 34.6% y/y. Other recreational goods were also strong. Footwear fell 21.7% y/y while clothing was off 17.4%. Given people are increasingly unable to leave the house, a lack of interest in clothing is perhaps unsurprising.
  • It is important to note that our data is compiled through cashless transactions via NAB terminals. Given that many businesses have banned cash transactions to limit virus spread and that consumers are rapidly switching to online for many purchases, we express some caution about the result.

NAB Chief Economist, Alan Oster commented:

Our forecast points to a moderate rise in the ABS retail sales measure in March (+0.2% m/m), but the headline is increasingly not relevant for individual sectors facing highly divergent consumer responses to the crisis. Furthermore, there is good reason to think that many of the areas that surged represent essentially one-off increases to stockpile food supplies, or make purchases of home computer or exercise equipment. Supermarket purchases are already returning somewhat towards normal levels for example.

Efforts to contain the virus are having a very sharp impact on the economy, with many businesses essentially unable to trade due to restrictions. Business confidence in the NAB Monthly Business Survey has plummeted to record lows (around three times as bad as the bottom of the 1990 recession). Similar un-precedented results were reported for falls in forward orders and the level of capacity utilisation. We now expect unemployment to reach 11.75% by mid-year and remain over 7% the end of 2021. Consumers are unlikely to make many discretionary purchases in this environment and we expect weak retail spending prints for some time. Year-on-year growth

For more information, please see the NAB Cashless Retail Sales Index March 2020.