A hard-up consumer usually spends a government handout until it's all gone, and in the case of the handout from the last federal budget it's happened a lot more quickly than most retail industry insiders would have thought possible. Blink and you missed it.
After just a couple of short months of reprieve from the drudgery of no or minimal sales growth, Australia's retail chains have once again been reminded of what the world in 2012 is really like when the government isn't there to paper things over.
Small retailers, of course, needed no such reminder. On a year-over-year basis, which eliminates seasonal factors, Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) data indicates that sales for independent retailers grew by just 1.5 per cent in July, compared with 4.5 per cent growth in May-June.
For the retail sector as a whole this picture was the same - growth of 2.5 per cent in July following 5 per cent growth in the two preceding months.
This weak July result is particularly concerning because it comes off a very poor July 2011 when sales growth was actually negative for small retailers. So experience suggests that things should have been better this July.
Independent clothing and accessories retailers suffered a sales decline of 21.1 per cent in July 2011, and so their 9.8 per cent gain this July didn't even come halfway toward offsetting that loss.
Problems on the mum-and-dad side of the fashion sector may fly under the radar but the damage to small chains is becoming increasingly public. On Tuesday it was the turn of the 36 year-old Ojay chain, with more than 20 stores in Victoria, NSW, Queensland and WA, to enter administration.
Ojay's troubles come hard on the heels of the liquidation of Frat House (10 stores in three states) in August, which in turn followed a raft of other casualties such as Brown Sugar and Bettina Liano.
The fashion sector may be fast becoming retail's Bermuda Triangle, with empty storefronts proliferating in once vibrant fashion strips like Oxford Street in Sydney's Paddington.
For independents, the silver lining is the cafe/restaurant segment, which is still performing robustly - up 7 per cent for the independents and 10.6 per cent for the chains on a year-over-year basis.
Independent food-at-home retail was down 1.2 per cent on the year to July while the major supermarkets had a 3.1 per cent gain.
In the "other retailing" segment, small retailers copped a 3.1 per cent sales decline year over year, while chains were up 9.7 per cent. The health and beauty sub-segment was very strong but newsagents, book stores and recreational goods retailers were awful, at least in the aggregate.
Household goods nudged up modestly.
But for all the problems this kind of data reveals for independent retail in Australia, there's no getting around the fact that the July result for department stores and discount department stores – down 7.1 per cent year over year - was, well, shocking.
The smarter shopping centre operators are now coming to grips with the fact that the retailers that have anchored their properties for more than two generations are fast becoming unreconstructed – and unreconstructible - basket cases.
For years now these retailers have told the market that if only the weather would get more seasonable, and the consumer less cautious, their strategies for growth would propel them to a glorious future of top-line growth.
Many landlords have now switched off and are thinking seriously about what the future looks like without those retailers.
Michael Baker is principal of Baker Consulting and can be reached at email@example.com and www.mbaker-retail.com.