A man refills a car at a petrol station.
JOHANNESBURG - Rising fuel and utility prices have eroded disposable incomes in South Africa, with retail sales rising a modest 1.1percent year-on-year in February from a 1.2percent increase in January.

Data from Statistics SA yesterday showed that prices rose slower for general dealers, pharmaceuticals and medical goods, and cosmetics and toiletries.

Jacques Nel, an analyst at NKC Africa Economics, said retail sales remained dismal amid numerous consumer headwinds that included higher fuel costs and taxes.

He said load shedding also put pressure on smaller retailers, forcing them to shut their doors temporarily.

“The return of load shedding could again put pressure on smaller retailers going forward, while consumer demand is forecast to be hampered further by fuel price hikes and elevated inflationary pressures,” Nel said.

Investec economist Lara Hodes said the retail sales figures reflected a highly constrained consumer demand environment, underpinned by muted economic growth.

Hodes said the subdued retail environment emphasised the plight of consumers, who continued to face a myriad of challenges.

Fitch Solutions, a unit of the Fitch Group, this week warned that South Africa’s high level of unemployment would continue to weigh on private consumption and real gross domestic product growth this year.

Data from Momentum Investments also showed that the household debt-to-disposable income ratio has declined to levels last seen in 2005.

Momentum Investments economist Sanisha Packirisamy said she expected growth in household consumption to decline to 1.3percent this year, given pressure on real disposable income growth and a subdued outlook on employment.

“The expectation for a significant near-term rebound in retail sales is therefore low amid the increase in downside risks to the consumer balance sheet and continued weakening sentiment,” Packirisamy said.

Meanwhile, data from the South African Chamber of Commerce and Industry (Sacci) showed that trade conditions remained negative last month.

Sacci’s trade activity index recovered slightly to 37 points from 34 points in the previous month.

The trade expectations index inched up 4 index points to 43 points, 10 index points below last year’s level.

Sacci chief executive Alan Mukoki said respondents indicated that the possibility of a stricter trade control and regulatory environment in the short to medium term would add pressure to the tough trade environment.

“Respondents also listed challenges of competition, low economic growth, service delivery, labour and other protests, safety and security concerns, poor service delivery, less disposable income of consumers and escalating energy and transport costs as the main obstacles to trade growth,” Mukoki said.