Value of B.C. retail sales nudges up in March after slipping in February

March was a ho-hum month for B.C. retailers as Statistics Canada reported a modest sales rebound following a February dip.

Dollar-volume sales rose 0.7% to a seasonally adjusted $7.27 billion. Year-over-year, sales were up a scant 1.2% and improved on February’s 0.9% reading, but compared with a national increase of 2.6% and stronger gains in nearly all other provinces.

The Vancouver census metropolitan area (CMA) outperformed the rest of the province with sales up 1.5% from February to $3.38 billion. Still, this lagged behind on a 12-month basis as sales dipped 1.2% year-over-year.

As with the national picture, the March improvement owed in part to upward pressure from gasoline prices and sales at building material and garden equipment and supplies dealers.

Headline retail sales have crept higher after bottoming in mid-2018, but growth has been disappointing. Through the first quarter, sales rose 1.7% from same-period 2018, with growth inflated in part by a sharp decline last January. Housing-related sales at building materials and garden equipment and supplies dealers and home furniture and furnishings dealers are down, reflecting the soft housing market. Motor vehicle and parts purchasing is flat, while non-discretionary purchases at food and beverage stores and health product stores are up. Adjusting for inflation, real retail sales are down slightly this year, although this does not account for online retail, which was up 20% nationally.

Regionally, Vancouver CMA sales were virtually unchanged from same-quarter 2018, with a gain of 3.2% in other parts of B.C.

The number of people receiving employment insurance (EI) benefits in B.C. was little changed in March, with levels edging lower by 0.3%, or 110 persons, to 40,940 beneficiaries. Levels were down by 5.5% from a year ago. While creeping higher since late 2018, EI counts remain low and in line with levels last observed in 2007. Low counts align with the province’s strong labour market and low unemployment rate, which sat at 4.7% in March and was lowest among provinces.

Among CMAs, Vancouver EI counts were level from February, with stronger declines in Abbotsford-Mission (3.8% or 70 persons) and Victoria (3.2% or 70 persons). Kelowna was the exception as unemployment rose with EI counts up 4.7%, or 110 persons, from February. Outlying areas of the province and smaller urban centres also experienced lower EI counts.

While levels are low, there has been a recent uptick in the number of claims, which could signal some labour market stress. Claims rose for a fifth straight month; at just over 26,000 claims, levels were the highest in nearly a year. •

Bryan Yu is deputy chief economist at Central 1 Credit Union.