Picture: BLOOMBERG
Picture: BLOOMBERG

Prospects for the retail sector remain weak and are unlikely to improve in 2017, as confirmed by Massmart’s interim sales update released on Monday.

In the 26 weeks to June 25, Massmart recorded R42.5bn in sales, representing an increase of 0.5% compared with the year-earlier period. Comparable store sales fell 1.6%. Product inflation was estimated at 3.2%.

Massmart’s share price initially dipped more than 2% after the announcement, but bounced back into marginally positive territory. "I don’t know if there was anyone who was massively disappointed by the update," said Old Mutual Investment Group consumer and industrial sector analyst Brian Pyle. "Nobody really expected anything else other than what Massmart reported today. People are expecting tough times and the update shows it. That said, these numbers are weak."

Comparable store sales fell at most of the company’s trading divisions. Like-for-like sales fell 3.5% at Massdiscounters, by 0.2% at Massbuild and 3.3% at Masscash. Masswarehouse grew comparable sales by 1.5% with inflation of 3.9%.

Mergence Investment Managers portfolio manager Peter Takaendesa said the food side of the business performed better than nonfood categories. Sales growth in food was 3%. In general merchandise it fell 2.9%.

"As we saw in the recently reported Woolworths numbers, the trend of better food sales relative to nonfood consumer goods is evident in Massmart’s numbers. Consumers are largely in survival mode and discretionary items have to take a back seat for now," he said.

The biggest concern for all retailers was the downward trend in growth rates to levels much lower than cost inflation. This came at a cost to profit margins, said Takaendesa.

For Massmart, he expected a technical improvement in the sales rate for the rest of the year, but a stronger recovery was only likely later in 2018 "and could be better if we get an interest rate cut sooner to help consumer confidence recover".

"It’s going to be difficult for Massmart’s turnaround efforts to show the intended results given much weaker consumer spend and the mid-long term risks posed by independent 
e-commerce rivals such as Takealot, which need to be monitored closely," he said.

Ashburton Investments said that it preferred Woolworths in this sector.

Woolworths said it expected its adjusted headline earnings per share for the year to June 25 to fall between 5% and 10%.

"Massmart’s update shows the really poor consumer environment in SA," said Ashburton portfolio manager Wayne McCurrie. "This is not unique to Massmart. All consumer firms are suffering the same — a subdued consumer in recession."

McCurrie said the performance of Massmart’s food division was reasonable and the performance of the nonfood goods was "terrible", but that the market knew this after SA fell into recession.

Pyle said the next six months were not going to be any better for any retailer, but that the sector could see recovery in 2018.


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