Canberra's retailers suffered the nation's biggest downturn this summer as alcohol, takeaway boosted

Press/Media: Expert Comment


As bushfires raged and heavy smoke fell on Canberra this summer, sales in alcohol, takeaway and hardware soared.

But for most retailers, it was a difficult time as the heavy smoke was followed by the Orroral Valley bushfire within the territory itself, and spending went down across most sectors.

Sales slumped 2.3 per cent in January, by far the biggest fall of any other state or territory.

Meanwhile, alcohol consumption soared in January alone, while over the whole season Canberrans turned to takeaway and hardware.

And bookstores, fashion and electronics suffered the most.

Key points:

  • Canberra retail sales slumped 2.3 per cent in January, the biggest fall nationally
  • There was a spike in alcohol and takeaway sales, along with hardware
  • One bookstore bucked the downward trend, revealing how people turn to comforting distractions during a crisis

No summer, no spending

For Phoebe Breen of Meet Gather Collect in Aranda, it was a tough season.

She said they usually depended on the summer for strong sales, much like their counterparts at the bushfire-ravaged South Coast.

"Usually it's our most busy time of year," she said.

"It was fairly obvious, I guess, the foot traffic was not here — people were probably going to the mall to escape smoke in their own houses."

Canberra's decision to stay home with comfort foods has come as no surprise to psychologists — and with coronavirus now a global cause for panic, that downturn is likely to continue as the world braces for recession.

Graham Catt of the Canberra Business Chamber said people simply were not leaving the house over the summer, and many just did not open their doors.

"The thing people tend to say is 'we didn't have a summer'," he said. "We weren't going out for that coffee, we weren't having lunch outside."

Bookstore manages to buck the trend as community spirit grows

Some retailers, however, sailed through relatively unscathed.

One of those was bookstore manager Jess Rowe, who said her Gungahlin shop Bookface did not take a financial hit in the summer months.

She said she was relieved to find people continued to show an interest in her stock during what was usually her best period for sales.

"We actually did really well, because we've got such a good community behind us here," she said.

"They want to support us because we support them."

Macquarie University Associate Professor of Marketing Jana Bowden said fear and boredom played a role in how people spent money in a crisis.

"The news has been particularly devastating — we have gone from fires to floods and now to the virus," she said.

"On the one hand you have these tight purse strings, consumer spending is down … and then you have the secondary effect of people not wanting to go outside.

"So you have this blip where online sales are going up — it's shown a significant increase in demand in the last week."

But she said consumers had a tipping point where they tended to be so overloaded with bad news they needed comfort from something positive and distracting.

This could explain the interest in Ms Rowe's local bookstore, and certainly shed light on all the eating and drinking Canberrans were doing.

There was also the added benefit of supporting a local business, a tendency towards community spirit that developed in the wake of the bushfires.

"There is a need for the consumer to feel some sort of therapeutic and cathartic or positive relief in this situation and it may be that the psychology behind going to bookstores and purchasing books in this time of absolute crisis is actually, firstly, an element of therapy and [also] there is probably an element of escapism going on," Dr Bowden said.

"There's a comfort in reading, there's a fantasy in reading — one way to avoid that information and try and create a positive frame is to read stories about other issues."

As coronavirus threatens, people may return to local stores

The spike in hardware sales may be due in part to people stocking up on P2 masks and cooling fans during a hot and smoky January.

But Dr Bowden said the desire for comfort in the face of fear and boredom might also have contributed.

And while panic buying toilet paper has been one notable effect of coronavirus, there will be other trends as that crisis continues.

"People are forced to stay home for elongated periods of time — what do you do with the time? Fill it, I guess, with DIY projects and building things at home," she said.

"Floods are different — people are fixing the roof."

She speculated that sales in games might go up as people looked for ways to keep themselves entertained at home during the coronavirus pandemic.

Another boost for local shops was the fact that while online shopping was seeing a huge spike in interest due to concern about the virus, some retailers were starting to struggle to meet that demand.

Dr Bowden said that with that in mind, local shops might get a boost.

"You would expect from now on that consumers are not going to go to major shopping centres," Dr Bowden said.

"The only fly in the ointment is whether the brands have enough capacity in terms of their ability to manage logistics, distribution and supply to keep up.

"What we saw [with restrictions on toilet paper purchases] was the supermarkets indicating they're unable to meet that demand."

Period8 Mar 2020

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