Japan’s Sales Slump Amidst Crisis

TOKYO (AFP) – Japanese retail sales recorded their steepest drop in 13 years in March, the government said Wednesday as last month’s massive earthquake and tsunami dampened consumer sentiment.

Retail store sales in March tumbled 8.5 percent from a year earlier, reversing a 0.1 percent gain in February, the ministry of economy, trade and industry said.

It was the sharpest drop in 13 years and the second worst on record since the government started compiling the data in 1980, the ministry said.

The March 11 disaster destroyed houses and stores along the northeastern coast and prompted consumers across the nation to cut spending on non-essential items, economists said.

Auto sales plunged 32.8 percent in March from a year earlier, with machinery sales down 17.3 percent. Sales of clothes and textiles fell 10.0 percent but fuel sales rose 5.1 percent, according to the official data.

“Voluntary restraint among consumers played a big role,” in the retail sales slump, said Takeshi Minami, economist at Norinchukin Research Institute.

“Looking ahead, moves among retailers to close stores or shorten business hours (to save electricity) will likely affect sales,” he said.

Retail sales will remain weak for the April-September first half of the current fiscal year, Minami said.

The tsunami damaged a major nuclear power plant, causing fears of a shortfall in electricity supply as summer approaches.

Minami added consumer sentiment was gradually recovering.

“This situation will not last forever. Sales of durable goods such as cars will start picking up,” when the nation enters full rehabilitation from the disaster, he said.

The retail data came a day after the Japan Department Stores Association said sales in March shrank 14.7 percent in March, also the biggest drop in 13 years.

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