Preliminary estimates of March retail trade from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), forecasting annual growth of 9.8%, should be read with “caution,” according to Australian Retailers Association CEO Paul Zahra, given the breakdown of the forecast and the fact worse lay ahead as retail shutdowns continued.

Preliminary figures from the ABS showed an 8.2% rise in sales for March, eclipsing the previous record of 8.1% recorded in June 2000, the month prior to the introduction of the GST.

Zahra said while the forecast was no surprise in trend terms, with rises in categories such as food, beverages, pharmacy, and electrical, offset by steep falls elsewhere in the sector, it was important to remember panic buying witnessed in March was beginning to subside and the overall spike was likely a blip.

“The ARA has consistently said since the coronavirus event began that some categories would do extremely well in the initial stages, and this bears out in regard to supermarkets and pharmacies,” Zahra said.

However, he said increased grocery numbers mask big falls across the rest of the retail sector. With more retailers ceasing to trade since April 1 and panic buying and stockpiling apparently starting to abate, it was probable an overall slump in retail spending was yet to be seen in trade data.

“We’re always happy to see increases anywhere in retail, but I’d urge extreme caution in reading much into these numbers, as we know the economy is going into recession and retail will be significantly affected.”

National Retail Association CEO Dominique Lamb said the March preliminary figures needed to be put into context given the impact COVID-19 has had since then.

“March saw a peak in panic buying in supermarkets, but the latest report also shows a nosedive in sales for cafes, restaurants, takeaway food services, and clothing,” Lamb said.

“April will be the first full month to incorporate the full extent of the lockdown restrictions, social distancing and the scaling down of services for cafes and restaurants. Retail is bracing itself for very sobering results for April onwards.

“It would also seem that the panic buying peak is behind us, so supermarkets are likely to see a downwards correction in their sales from now on. This remains an unprecedented economic challenge and struggling retailers need as much support as possible from governments at all levels to survive the COVID-19 crisis,” she said.