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

Photo: Getty
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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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