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Singapore retail sales fall 5.3% in January due to drop in motor sales

SINGAPORE retail sales continued to weaken in January, down 5.3 per cent year-on-year as motor sales remained a major drag, according to Department of Statistics data on Thursday. This deepened from a 3.4 per cent fall in December.

Excluding motor vehicles, however, retail sales were up 0.6 per cent year-on-year, improving from 0.1 per cent in December.

Total sales value for January was S$4.1 billion, with 5.8 per cent from online sales.

Online sales were particularly significant for computer and telecommunication equipment, accounting for 25.9 per cent of that industry's total sales. Online sales also accounted for 10.9 per cent of furniture and household equipment sales, and 7.8 per cent of supermarket and hypermarket sales.

These retail clusters could continue to benefit from the growth of online shopping, "especially as consumers reduce face-to-face exposure given Covid-19 concerns", said UOB economist Barnabas Gan. But he added that there might be cross-border online alternatives in these sectors, which are not captured in the local retail sales data.

Mr Gan believes the January figures were largely unaffected by the Covid-19 outbreak, as concerns over the virus shot up only at the end of January. 

A better gauge of the Covid-19 outbreak's impact on retail sales would be to average across January and February, or for the first quarter, said OCBC Bank head of treasury research and strategy Selena Ling.

As seasonal boosts from the Chinese New Year season dissipate and Covid-19 concerns intensify, retail sales are expected to keep falling, with tourism arrivals and consumer spending to plummet in the first quarter, said Mr Gan. He expects retail sales to see a full-year contraction of 5 per cent, deepening from a fall of 2.8 per cent in 2019.

Ms Ling sees possible double-digit declines towards the end of the first quarter, with retail sales continuing to decline until August at least.

In January, motor vehicles continued to be the category with the largest decline, down 33.6 per cent with a lower certificate of entitlement quota.

Sales also fell for furniture and household equipment (-16.0 per cent), optical goods and books (-9.4 per cent), department stores (-6.9 per cent), computer and telecommunications equipment (-6.4 per cent), and others (-4.9 per cent).

Seeing the strongest sales growth were supermarkets and hypermarkets at 8.7 per cent, food and alcohol at 7.4 per cent, and apparel and footwear at 6.4 per cent, which the report attributed partly to increased spending in the Chinese New Year festive season.

Also seeing growth were watches and jewellery (5.7 per cent), minimarts and convenience stores (4.5 per cent), petrol service stations (3.6 per cent), cosmetics, toiletries, and medical goods (1.6 per cent), and recreational goods (0.5 per cent).

On a seasonally adjusted monthly basis, retail sales were up 0.1 per cent in January, or down 0.5 per cent excluding motor vehicles.

Food and beverage services did better in January, up 9.1 per cent year-on-year with total sales value of S$963 million, which the report attributed to Chinese New Year falling in January 2020 as compared to February 2019. Online sales accounted for 9.8 per cent of sales.

On a seasonally adjusted monthly basis, sales of food and beverage services were up 0.8 per cent.

Cafes, food courts, and other eating places was the only segment to see sales fall, down 2 per cent.

Turnover rose 16.4 per cent for both fast food outlets and restaurants, and 8 per cent for food caterers, spurred by increased spending during the Chinese New Year celebrations.