Food retailers ate up $196 million in extra sales during January alone – with the ABS pointing the finger at panic buying brought on by lockdowns

Chris Putnam/Barcroft Media/Getty Inages
  • There’s evidence that January’s elevated grocery spending was caused by panic buying, according to the ABS.
  • In new retail trade data, the ABS said a 1.6% growth in food retailing correlated with coronavirus shutdowns in Brisbane and Western Australia.
  • Online food shopping remained at elevated levels through the month, bucking trends seen before COVID-19.
  • Visit Business Insider Australia’s homepage for more stories.

Australians were first warned against panic buying during the first wave of coronavirus lockdowns.

But the urge to splurge persisted during January’s snap shutdowns, the ABS states, with supermarket sales data suggesting folks in Brisbane and Western Australia were all too keen to clear their local aisles.

In its latest retail trade data, released Thursday, the ABS states total retail turnover grew 0.5% in January, to a seasonally-adjusted total of $30.5 billion.

Over the month, food retailing grew by 1.6%, or $196.1 million, handily beating all other retail sectors monitored by the ABS.

The bulk of that came from supermarket and grocery sales of $138.4 million, followed by liquor and specialised food retailing.

The growth in online food sales also dramatically outpaced overall grocery spending, thanks to 4.8% increase over the month. January’s online food sales totals followed a 6.8% increase in December.

The ABS thinks it knows why Australians were so keen to stock up over the new year period, both in person and online.

“The rise in both months coincides with lockdowns and subsequent restrictions, with evidence of panic buying remaining prevalent in weekly supermarket turnover data following these events in Greater Brisbane and Western Australia this month,” the ABS said.

The online sales figures were especially unusual, given the fact Australia’s number crunchers expect digital purchases to fall in the first month of the year.

“Due to January being a month where many families take a holiday, Online sales generally fall as a proportion of total sales in both December and January,” the ABS noted, “although changes in consumer behaviour and sporadic lockdowns have kept the proportion of online sales well above pre-pandemic levels.”

All up, seasonally-averaged online food sales totalled $908 million in January 2021 – well up from January 2020’s total of $515.7 million.

Panic buying wasn’t the only trend noted by the ABS.

Australia’s preference for online shopping appears to be hanging around, despite the reopening of brick-and-mortar retailers.

“Non-food online sales have plateaued since the middle of the year although maintain elevated levels,” the ABS said.

“In seasonally adjusted terms, Non-food sales remain up 57.8% compared to January 2020.”