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SMEs find a slight boost in consumer sentiment

The recent Westpac Consumer Sentiment bulletin for December 2023 sheds light on key indicators that could significantly impact SMEs across the country. 

The economic landscape for Australian SMEs in 2023 is marked by challenges but also opportunities for proactive and strategic businesses. Consumer sentiment in Australia rose slightly in December 2023, but remains well below historical averages. While this is a positive sign, there are still many concerns that could impact small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in the coming months.

Consumer sentiment rose by 2.7% in December, still remains at a very weak

The uptick in the Westpac Consumer Sentiment Index, albeit slight, indicates a cautious optimism among consumers. For SMEs, understanding consumer sentiment is crucial, as it directly influences spending patterns. In an environment where consumers remain wary, SMEs should focus on value propositions, targeted marketing, and customer engagement to stimulate demand. According to recent surveys, 40% of SMEs report a decrease in customer inquiries, with 60% experiencing delays in payment processing. Understanding these dynamics is crucial for SMEs as they tailor their products and services to meet evolving consumer demands.

Families feeling some relief from financial strain

There are signs that some of the pressure on family finances may finally be starting to ease. The sub-index tracking assessments of ‘finances vs a year ago’ posted a solid 5.9% gain in December to be up 11% on its September low. That said, at 68.2, the sub-index remains in extremely weak territory, more than 30pts below the ‘neutral’ level of 100. 

Inflation and future interest rate expectations continue to be major concerns for consumers

With the Reserve Bank of Australia’s decision to keep interest rates on hold, SMEs may experience a temporary reprieve in borrowing costs. However, the prevailing uncertainty regarding future rate hikes demands prudent financial planning. SMEs should assess their debt structures, explore fixed-rate options, and consider alternative financing methods to mitigate potential impacts on their bottom line. Data shows that SMEs, on average, pay an interest rate of 5.2% on business loans. To capitalise on this window, SMEs should consider refinancing options, negotiate favourable terms, and explore government-backed financing programs.

Supply chain pressures

Inflation concerns persist, with over 55% of consumers noting news on this issue. SMEs must carefully manage pricing strategies to navigate increased costs effectively. Supply chain resilience and operational efficiency will be crucial in mitigating the impact of rising inflation on production and service delivery costs. For SMEs, data indicates a 10% increase in the cost of raw materials, posing challenges to profit margins. Implementing data-driven pricing strategies, negotiating with suppliers, and optimizing operational efficiency are critical steps for SMEs to navigate the inflationary landscape.

The housing-related sentiment is mixed

The mixed signals from the housing market, including variations in consumer sentiment across states, warrant attention from SMEs operating in real estate and related industries. Data reveals a 7% drop in real estate transactions, impacting SMEs in this sector. Tailoring marketing strategies, exploring virtual property tours, and adjusting offerings based on regional trends are vital for real estate-focused SMEs. The mixed signals warrant attention from SMEs operating in real estate and related industries. Businesses should tailor their approaches based on regional trends and explore innovative solutions to adapt to shifting market dynamics.

Impact on SMEs

Lower consumer sentiment can have a significant impact on SMEs, as it can lead to decreased spending. This can make it difficult for businesses to generate revenue and grow. Additionally, businesses may need to adjust their marketing and pricing strategies to cope with changing consumer behaviour.

Specific areas of concern:

The report found that the “time to buy a major household item” sub-index fell to one of the lowest levels in history. This suggests that consumers are delaying major purchases due to concerns about the economy,which could negatively impact businesses that rely on consumer spending.

While consumers remain positive about the housing market, the report also found that risk aversion is high,with many consumers opting for safe-haven investments. This could impact businesses that rely on consumer borrowing, such as mortgage lenders and home improvement companies.

CreditorWatch’s Chief Economist, Anneke Thompson said: “Consumer sentiment lifted slightly following Westpac’s November survey, however it still hovers around record low levels. Business confidence is now turning decidedly sluggish, and not surprisingly the retail sector recorded the biggest fall. And while business conditions are still running above their long run average, the trend in this index shows a consistent downward shift since early 2023.

“Today’s confidence data reflects CreditorWatch’s November Business Risk Index trends, which shows the average value of invoices issued in November 2023 is now around half the value compared to three years’ ago. High interest rates, and the expectation from consumers and businesses alike that these will stay high until well into 2024, are causes for concern for both mortgage holders and business owners.

“On a more positive note, a still strong employment market is helping Australians weather what is a fairly brutal cost of living storm. However, the expectation is that unemployment will also rise through the first half of 2024, which is likely to further dent business confidence.”

Strategies for SMEs:

Data-Driven Decision-Making: Leverage data analytics to understand customer behavior, optimise pricing strategies, and make informed decisions to enhance business resilience.

Digital Transformation: Accelerate digital transformation initiatives to enhance online presence, streamline operations, and tap into digital marketing strategies tailored to changing consumer behaviors.

Financial Resilience: Conduct regular financial health checks, explore cost-saving measures, and build contingency plans to enhance financial resilience.

Tailored Marketing: Tailor marketing strategies based on regional variations and evolving consumer preferences, ensuring messages resonate with the specific concerns of the target audience.

Collaborative Initiatives: Explore collaborative efforts within the SME community, sharing insights and resources to collectively navigate challenges and foster growth.

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