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Canadian consumers expected to remain cautious as interest rates set to rise

Higher food and gasoline prices and hefty debt loads likely to be made worse by interest rate hikes will impact consumers’ buying habits going forward, say those who track retail spending.

It’s going to be tough for consumers who have depended on a low interest rate environment, said TD Bank economist Francis Fong, adding that rates are expected to go up this summer.

“The rising interest rate environment, this high household indebtedness situation β€” that’s all going to impede the ability of consumers to spend going forward,” Fong said Thursday from Toronto.

Statistics Canada said retail sales increased 0.4 per cent in February to $37.3 billion, giving retailers some relief after declining sales at the start of the year.

Consumers filling their tanks with higher-priced gas, along with those buying furniture and clothing, pushed sales higher in February.

But Fong said consumer spending will no longer be the same driving force going forward as it has been throughout the economic recovery.

The Retail Council of Canada said consumers are “still hanging back a little bit,” especially now that they have to spend more of their incomes on food and gas.

“Clearly, if they’re going to have spend a little bit more on basic necessities, they may pull back a little bit on the nice-to-haves, but not on the need-to-haves,” said spokeswoman Anne Kothawala.

Consumer confidence is soft and that mirrors spending, she added.

“Gas and food prices are actually very closely related. It costs more to transport goods,” Kothawala said.

Statistics Canada said the largest contributor to February’s increase in retail purchases in dollar terms was gasoline sales, which increased 1.3 per cent.

Gasoline prices have been surging along with crude oil, which began rising sharply in February with the outbreak of unrest in Libya, an OPEC member that accounted for about two per cent of the world’s crude output before civil war there.

As of Thursday, the Canadian average price compiled by GasBuddy.com was 129.6 cents per litre, up from about 118 cents per litre at the end of February.

But lower retail sales in Quebec β€” a 0.8 per cent decline β€” contributed the most towards the dampening of national retail sales, Statistics Canada said.

“The decline reflected, in part, lower sales of new motor vehicles in the province,” the federal agency said. “This was the second decline in retail sales in Quebec following six consecutive monthly gains.”

Quebec also increased its provincial sales tax to 8.5 per cent in January, up a percentage point.

Sales at clothing and clothing accessories stores were up 2.5 per cent, offsetting a decline in January. Sales at furniture and home furnishings stores grew 2.1 per cent in February, helped by gains in real estate sales.

Prof. Ken Wong of Queen’s University business school said once consumers pay down debt and spend more money on food and gas, there isn’t much left for anything else.

“You have to ask yourself what can be delayed and what can’t be delayed,” Wong said of consumer purchases.

“We cannot rely on interest rates remaining as low as they are as long as they have been going forward,” said Wong, who teaches business and marketing strategy.

Geographically, retail sales in February gained in six of 10 provinces, powered by Ontario where sales increased 0.7 per cent after two consecutive monthly declines.

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