Retail turnover increased 16.9% in May, seasonally adjusted, according to the latest figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). This follows a 17.7% fall in April.

The rise was attributed to easing of social distancing regulations and re-opening of physical stores by director of quarterly economy wide surveys, Ben James.

“Retailers across a range of industries reported high numbers of consumers returning to stores, with some retailers noting levels similar to those seen in December,” he said.

Clothing, footwear and personal accessory retailing experienced the most significant sales boost (129.2%) but remains well below levels seen at the same time last year, followed by department stores (44.4%) and cafes, restaurants and takeaway food (30.3%).

Household goods retailing was up 16.6% in May – well above levels seen at the same time last year – with retailers reporting continued spend on home improvements and high demand for recreational goods.

Results were broadly consistent across the states with Western Australia coming out on top (19.7%), followed closely by Tasmania (17.3%), Victoria (17.2%), Queensland (16.6%), New South Wales (16.5%), South Australia (16.1%), the Australian Capital Territory (12.2%) and the Northern Territory (8.1%).

Online sales saw a slight retraction, contributing to 10.1% of total retail turnover, down from 11.1% in April 2020. However, it is still four percentage points higher than the 6.2% seen in May 2019.

National Retail Association (NRA) CEO Dominique Lamb said although the May results are cause for some optimism, the broader context still shows that retail is a long way from recovery.

“In this volatile environment, we can’t simply look at one month and take that as a barometer as to how retail is travelling. The past three months have seen retail trade go up and down like a yo-yo, so we need to be careful about thinking we’ve almost reached a recovery,” she said.

“Australia is in its first recession in 30 years and many retailers remain coy about the future given JobKeeper is due to end in September. The situation in Victoria is also a sage reminder that the reimposition of lockdown measures remains a distinct possibility.

“We are very interested to see what the June and July figures reveal when they are released.”

Australian Retailers Association (ARA) CEO, Paul Zahra echoed Lamb’s response, suggesting that while the figures are encouraging, it is far too early to say that the retail sector is out of the woods.

“We are concerned that this could just be a ‘sugar hit’ from consumer spending bolstered by government support,” he said.

“Economic indicators such as the unemployment rate are a reason to be cautious about the retail recovery, which will be hard fought and move in-step with the wider economic recovery.”