While the seasonally adjusted monthly measure was relatively unchanged, year-on-year growth was 3.14 per cent, up from 3.01 per cent in February, the ABS said.
Quarterly volumes, which were also released by the ABS on Tuesday, were up 0.2 per cent, a slow down quarter-on-quarter from 0.8 per cent growth in the December 2017 quarter but in line with the September 2017 quarter.
Department stores gave up some of the 1.48 per cent gain posted in February, down .5 per cent in March, seasonally adjusted, and up 0.38 per cent y/y.
Clothing, footwear and personal accessories was also weaker, down 0.2 per cent in March compared to a one per cent increase in February, up 3.9 per cent y/y.
Cafes, restaurants and takeaway food services also performed poorly, down 0.8 per cent in March after a 0.74 per cent gain in February, up 2.84 per cent y/y.
Household goods turnover declined 0.26 per cent in March and increased by 2.9 per cent y/y.
Supermarkets saved the day, with food retailing up 0.7 per cent for the month, driven by a .5 per cent increase in the seasonally adjusted supermarket and grocery store measure. The y/y measure for food increased by 4.17 per cent.
The trend estimate for the overall sector was up 0.3 per cent in March, indicating a slightly positive outlook.
The market had been expecting a weak result after a higher-than-expected figure in February but the figures indicate persistent weakness in the sector heading into Winter.
Australian Retailers Association executive director Russell Zimmerman described the numbers as “very disappointing” outlining specific concern for cafes, restaurants and takeaway food services.
“Its a little bit of a gauge on the economy, if [cafes, restaurants and takeaway food services] starts to bounce up people are feeling more confident,” he said.
Zimmerman hopes that Tuesday night’s Federal Budget delivers shoppers some hip pocket support that may get them spending.
Commonwealth Bank senior economist Kristina Clifton also said the figures were disappointing.
“We will probably need to see further falls in the underemployment rate and a lift in household income growth before retail trade really starts to lift,” she said.
ANZ senior economist Joanne Masters said that the soft figures indicated that the timing of Easter may have impacted trade.
“From a policy perspective, while falling retail goods prices are a drag on inflation, they provide some purchasing power boost in a period where household budgets are challenged,” she said.”
“Indeed, there was strong growth in sales volumes for clothing and household goods in Q1.”
Employer groups used Tuesday’s figures to outline the need for a retail-friendly Budget.
“This is very sobering news for retailers across the country and again highlights the modest start to 2018 that the sector is experiencing,” National Retailers Association chief executive Dominique Lamb said.
“While the NRA is certainly not hitting the panic button just yet, this is a timely reminder of the need for governments to put into place measures that support retail.”
More to come.