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 Nridigital.com

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.