Five questions answered on bleak December high street sales figures

Causes and effects.

High street sales figures were down in December despite the festive season official figures show. We answer five questions on the latest high street sales figures.

How much are December sales figures down by?

Newly released seasonally adjusted sales figures for December show a fall of 0.1 per cent compared to the month before, figures from the Office of National Statistics show.

Compared to a year earlier the quantity of goods sold rose by 0.3%, which is worse than expected.

With the exception of 2010 this is slowest year-on-year growth in December sales since 1998.

Which sectors of the industry are down the most?

Clothes and food sales are down most notably. Household goods were down 3 per cent, the biggest decline since January 2010.

Food sales fell by 0.3 per cent from the month before and fashion sales dropped by 3.5 per cent.

Which sectors rose?

Unsurprisingly, online shopping. About 10.6 per cent of December sales were carried out online, up from 9.4 percent the year before. Overall, total online sales were up 15.5% from a year earlier.

The data tallies with figures from research firm Experian that suggested the number of visits to retail websites rose 86% on Christmas Eve, 71% on Christmas Day and 17% on Boxing Day compared with a year earlier, due to many online stores beginning their online sales before Christmas.

What are the experts saying?

“With many household budgets still feeling the squeeze and no signs of economic challenges receding any time soon, this led to a respectable rather than spectacular result during the most crucial trading period of the year,“ Helen Dickinson, director of the British Retail Consortium, told The Telegraph.

"As with our own figures, the internet was the standout performer – our own figures would have shown subzero growth in non-food sales if it hadn’t been for online's significant year on year rise.

“Even food, usually dependable at this time of year, showed a slowdown in growth.This suggests that relentlessly tough times led many to ‘trade down’ to cheaper and own-label brands, but also that many economised so that they had more money to spend treating family and friends with nice presents.”

What is the potential long term effect?

The figures indicate that another recession could be heading Britain’s way. If the economy contracts during the current quarter it would mean the country could experience a third recession in a row.

It also means that more money creation by the Bank of England could occur. The bank could also change its inflation target to allow for higher prices rises, all of which could weaken the pound.


High street sales figures were down in December. Photograph: Getty Images

Heidi Vella is a features writer for

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.