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Canadian retailers face challenges from cost-conscious consumers, U.S. giants

Canadian retailers face a tough year as they struggle to convince cash-strapped customers to spend on anything other than staples amid rising food and gas prices while also fending off competition from an influx of U.S. retail giants.

The value of retail sales in March was flat at $37.3 billion but after removing the effects of price changes, particularly higher food and gasoline prices, retail sales volume slipped 0.8 per cent, according to a Statistics Canada report Friday.

“That marks four months of stagnant sales, suggesting that consumers are struggling with higher gasoline prices and food costs eating into fixed budgets,” CIBC economist Emanuella Enenajor said in a report.

Consumers appear to be reining in spending after a post-recession spree that saw some Canadians’ rack up high levels of debt — prompting warnings from government and bank officials against people spending beyond their means.

Meanwhile, rising food and gasoline prices are outpacing tepid income growth, which means consumers have to reduce spending in other areas, said Robert Kavcic at BMO Economics.

“While a late Easter and dreary weather may have had an impact on March sales, Canadian consumer spending is clearly losing some momentum as prices at the pump and grocery store move higher while borrowing cools,” he said.

About 86 per cent of Canadians who responded to a recent Nielsen survey said that rising gas prices are impacting their driving and shopping habits — a 31 per cent increase since 2010.

That could mean a persistently tough environment for retailers, who are finding it difficult to pass along higher commodity prices.

Canada’s largest supermarket chain, Loblaw (TSX:L), has expressed concern that profit margins will be squeezed for fear of losing customers to rivals if it raises prices.

Retail sales make up about 40 per cent of total consumer spending in Canada, which in turn represents a large chunk of the economy. That means retailers aren’t the only ones who could feel the pain of reduced spending.

The latest data was much weaker than economists had been expecting and will put a dent in first-quarter gross domestic product growth.

Sales for the first quarter were down an annualized 3.1 per cent, but firm results in manufacturing, wholesale and housing should still support positive real GDP growth in March, Kavcic said.

The data confirms that real consumption growth slowed to just above one per cent annualized in the first quarter, well below the five per cent pace seen in the final three months of last year, a report from Capital Economics said.

“Given the past increases in the prices of essentials such as food and gasoline, there is a good chance that the weaker growth in sales volumes will persist through the second quarter.”

In addition to weaker consumer demand, Canadian retailers also face stiff competition from the entry of a number of large U.S. chains, including one of the biggest chains, discount-chic Target.

Canada is particularly attractive to U.S. retailers because of the strong loonie, higher sales per square foot and potential for expansion, Sherry Cooper, chief economist at BMO wrote in a report Friday.

“Domestic retailers must respond quickly and decisively to this threat or risk being shut out of consumer wallets or being swallowed up by acquisitive American behemoths,” she said.

Despite the more challenging retail environment, there are reports that the iconic Hudson’s Bay Co. will launch an initial public offering — though the company would not confirm that Friday.

The Canadian retailer has hinted that it might soon go public and speculation has intensified since it made billions in the sale of most of its Zellers stores to Target, which plans to open its first Canadian stores in 2013.

But consumers seem to be intent on scaling back trips to the mall. Weakness in March retail sales was broad based, with seven of the major components reporting declines in March and four sectors posting gains. Furniture sales saw the biggest decline, followed by sporting goods, health and personal care.

However, sales at electronics and appliance stores, were up 2.1 per cent — increasing for a second consecutive month following three months of declines.

Gas stations saw the largest dollar increase in March sales with sales up 1.4 per cent, their eighth increase in nine months. Statistics Canada’s Consumer Price Index for gasoline has risen by nearly 40 per cent since March 2009.

High gas prices kept inflation at an elevated 3.3 per cent, according to another Statistics Canada report on Friday.

The monthly gain in prices rose by 0.3 per cent — virtually all attributed to a 6.4 per cent hike at the pump — following a 1.1 per cent jump the previous month. Food purchased at stores rose 3.7 per cent in April, the same annual increase as in March, while overall food prices rose at slightly reduced 3.3 per cent rate.

The eight per cent jump in pump prices in March was followed by a 6.5 per cent increase in April, which will also have an impact in next month’s report, Kavcic said.

The Capital Economics report added that recent declines in commodity prices —notably oil — could eventually offer consumers some relief, but not likely until at least the third quarter of the year.

Gas prices have skyrocketed in recent weeks and were as high as $1.50 a litre in some communities last week. On average, Canadians were paying $1.27 a litre on Friday, according to the price monitoring website Gasbuddy.com.

Pump prices remain high even though the price of oil has backed off from recent highs. It generally takes months for sustained lower oil prices to work their way down to the gas pump.

Higher prices contributed to a 0.8 per cent rise in sales at general merchandise stores in March.

The higher gas prices don’t seem to be deterring consumers from spending on their vehicles.

After three consecutive monthly declines, sales at motor vehicle and parts dealers rose 0.3 per cent in March. Sales increased 0.8 per cent at new car dealers while the rest of the subsector showed declines.

Retail sales rose in seven provinces in March. The largest increase in dollar terms was in Quebec, where sales increased 0.5 per cent, offsetting the loss in February. All of the Atlantic provinces registered sales increases in March. Retailers in Nova Scotia (up 2.4 per cent) led the gains following two months of declines.

Ontario (down 0.8 per cent) recorded the largest sales decline in March. This was the third decrease in Ontario in four months.