Retailers have experienced their worst-ever month of trading as households have reined in their spending following a COVID-19-inspired panic buying spree in March.
Shoppers obeying social distancing rules deserted shopping malls and stores in April, driving a record 17.9 per cent fall in purchases that ripped $5.38 billion out of the sector, according to figures released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
The decline was felt across the board.
After experiencing bumper sales in March as people rushed to stock up on toilet paper, flour, pasta, tinned food and cleaning products, supermarkets and grocers were hit along with other retailers.
Sales of food fell more than 17 per cent last month after surging 24 per cent in March while purchases of non-perishable goods plummeted 23.7 per cent in April, a huge turnaround from a 39 per cent spike the previous month.
Australian Retailers Association chief executive officer Paul Zahra cautioned that the "painful" results reflected a highly unusual trading period for outlets.
"These figures, whilst painful to see, are no surprise given the anticipated, brutal impact of the pandemic on our retail sector with most stores closed during this reporting period," Mr Zahra said.
Last month continued a dismal start to the year for many retailers.
Purchases of clothing, footwear and personal accessories were slow in March and in April fell to half the level of a year earlier.
Cafes, restaurants and takeaway food outlets have suffered a similar hit.
But Mr Zahra said that as movement restrictions were eased shoppers were coming back to stores, though he cautioned that any recovery was likely to be slow.
"As we commence our recovery, we feel there is reason to feel cautiously optimistic," he said.
"We are encouraged by the obvious enthusiasm from Australians to return to physical stores - as reflected in the crowds of shoppers in stores around the country over recent weekend trading."
But, unsurprisingly, many have been turning to the internet to do their shopping.
Online sales jumped a record 10 per cent in April, putting pressure on courier services and the postal network.
The April results highlight a wild couple of months for the retail sector, after sales surged by a record 8.2 per cent the previous month.
The March shopping spree delivered a windfall for supermarkets, which recorded a 22.4 per cent jump in purchases, driven by a doubling of turnover in toilet paper, flour, rice and pasta. Sales of canned food, medicinal products and cleaning goods surged 50 per cent higher.
People also rushed to set up home offices and prepare for do-it-yourself projects, supporting sales of electrical goods and hardware.