By Jenina P. Ibañez, Reporter

RETAILERS still expect sales to remain lower than pre-pandemic levels this year, as consumers continue to stay home and scale back on their spending amid the pandemic.

“Retail will still be soft this year 2021,” Philippine Retailers Association (PRA) Vice-Chairman Roberto S. Claudio, Sr. said in an e-mailed response to questions on Thursday.

“We are expecting 20-30% lower than 2019 pre-pandemic level. This is, however, a slight improvement of approximately 10% from 2020 levels,” he added.

Retail was one of the hardest-hit sectors last year, as the strict lockdown forced the closure of non-essential businesses for a few weeks. Malls also experienced a significant decline in foot traffic, as many consumers stayed home and shifted to online shopping.

To spur recovery, Mr. Claudio said the retail sector is filing a formal request with the government to include its frontline workers among those with vaccination priority against the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19).

“This way, more retail businesses could be opened, to further open up the economy safely,” he said.

The Philippines is in talks with seven vaccine manufacturers for 148 million COVID-19 vaccine doses that can inoculate 50-70 million Filipinos this year.

National Task Force Against COVID-19 chief implementer Carlito G. Galvez said that the government vaccine program will prioritize healthcare workers, uniformed personnel, teachers and school workers, government employees, overseas Filipino workers, and other essential workers. The government will also prioritize indigent senior citizens, poor communities, students, and people with comorbidities.

PRA in November said that sales have improved since the easing of lockdown restrictions in mid-August, but operations of many retailers are still limited due to sparse foot traffic and dwindling cash flow.

The industry group also found that consumer demand remained low due to public health anxiety and limits on public transportation.

Mr. Claudio had said that food, medicine, and fitness equipment sales were strong, but some stores selling non-essential products like clothing were still performing poorly.

Foreign clothing brands such as Dorothy Perkins and Warehouse offered deep discounts before closing branches in some Metro Manila malls.

Consumer behavior will change, according to Nielsen Retail Intelligence, as they shop more online and buy “self-care” and smaller-sized goods.

Third-quarter consumption declined by 9.3%, against the 15.3% drop in the second quarter, according to the Philippine Statistics Authority.