Retail sales up: but then January-March has been an exception

We shouldn't call recovery just yet.

With the British Retail Consortium showing that retail sales increased in March by 3.7 per cent on a total basis and by 1.9 per cent on a like-for-like basis, many are now suggesting that the beleaguered retail sector is seemingly moving into recovery mode. The March numbers follow on from an upbeat February and both have helped to contribute to first quarter sales growth which was the strongest of any three-month period since December 2009.

While such momentum is clearly welcome, in order assess the true strength of the recovery the figures do need to be set in a wider context.

With the earlier timing of Easter this year, it was always inevitable that March would be a good month for sales growth. What is perhaps surprising, however, is that given this sales growth was not higher. Indeed, despite the boost of Easter, both the total and like-for-like growth rates were relatively subdued to those seen in February. So, if anything, the March numbers represent a slight deterioration in growth momentum rather than a strengthening.

The other point to which attention needs to be drawn is that the growth was fairly unevenly distributed. Food retailers, helped in large part by inflation, saw some good gains. However, the clothing sector had a torrid time as the unseasonal weather drove down demand for spring merchandise.

Then there is the unusually buoyant demand for electricals. On this front, while there is inevitably strong demand for products like tablets, some of the growth reported by retailers is likely to have come from the collapse of chains like Comet and Jessops – the sales of which have been reallocated to those left standing. Neither the British Retail Consortium nor the Office for National Statistics adjust for such failures which means, in essence, that their aggregation of growth reported by retailers becomes divorced from a proper reading of actual underlying consumer spending growth. While the impact of this methodological anomaly should not be overstated, it is worth bearing in mind when assessing the growth figures.

None of this takes away, of course, from the strong growth seen in February which will, inevitably, be pointed to as a sign that things are getting better. However, even here context remains important. The February numbers were partly flattered by a weaker January when some spending was postponed due to the winter weather. This was especially true of fashion where not only did depleted footfall on high streets dint sales, but the cold temperatures were out of kilter with the spring stock which was on the shop floor towards the end of the month. Comparatively, most of February was fairly mild which encouraged consumers out onto the high street and into buying spring fashion lines.

So, in many ways, the first three months of this year have been fairly exceptional – in terms of the weather, in the timing of Easter, and in the amount of churn with various failures in the sector. As such, this is perhaps not the best period over which to pronounce that a meaningful and sustained retail recovery has begun. Only when we get into May and June will we have a more rounded picture of retail prospects.

Retail sales increased in March. Photograph: Getty Images

 Managing Director of Conlumino

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Andy Burnham quits shadow cabinet: "Let's end divisive talk of deselections"

The shadow home secretary reflected on a "profoundly sad" year. 

Andy Burnham will leave the shadow cabinet in the reshuffle to focus on his bid to become Manchester's metro mayor in 2017. 

In his swansong as shadow home secretary, Burnham said serving Labour had been a privilege but certain moments over the last 12 months had made him "profoundly sad".

He said:

"This is my tenth Conference speaking to you as a Cabinet or shadow cabinet minister.

"And it will be my last.

"It is time for me to turn my full focus to Greater Manchester. 

"That's why I can tell you all first today that I have asked Jeremy to plan a new shadow cabinet without me, although I will of course stay until it is in place."

Burnham devoted a large part of his speech to reflecting on the Hillsborough campaign, in which he played a major part, and the more recent campaign to find out the truth of the clash between police and miners at Orgreave in 1984.

He defended his record in the party, saying he had not inconsistent, but loyal to each Labour leader in turn. 

Burnham ran in the 2015 Labour leadership election as a soft left candidate, but found himself outflanked by Jeremy Corbyn on the left. 

He was one of the few shadow cabinet ministers not to resign in the wake of Brexit.

Burnham spoke of his sadness over the turbulent last year: He was, he said:

"Sad to hear the achievements of our Labour Government, in which I was proud to serve, being dismissed as if they were nothing.

"Sad that old friendships have been strained; 

"Sad that some seem to prefer fighting each other than the Tories."

He called for Labour to unite and end "divisive talk about deselections" while respecting the democratic will of members.

On the controversial debate of Brexit, and controls on immigration, he criticised Theresa May for her uncompromising stance, and he described Britain during the refugee crisis as appearing to be "wrapped up in its own selfish little world".

But he added that voters do not want the status quo:

"Labour voters in constituencies like mine are not narrow-minded, nor xenophobic, as some would say. 

"They are warm and giving. Their parents and grandparents welcomed thousands of Ukrainians and Poles to Leigh after the Second World War.

"And today they continue to welcome refugees from all over the world. They have no problem with people coming here to work.

"But they do have a problem with people taking them for granted and with unlimited, unfunded, unskilled migration which damages their own living standards. 

"And they have an even bigger problem with an out-of-touch elite who don't seem to care about it."

Burnham has summed up Labour's immigration dilemma with more nuance and sensitivity than many of his colleagues. But perhaps it is easier to do so when you're leaving your job.