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

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Inside Big Ben: why the world’s most famous clock will soon lose its bong

Every now and then, even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care.

London is soon going to lose one of its most familiar sounds when the world-famous Big Ben falls silent for repairs. The “bonging” chimes that have marked the passing of time for Londoners since 1859 will fall silent for months beginning in 2017 as part of a three-year £29m conservation project.

Of course, “Big Ben” is the nickname of the Great Bell and the bell itself is not in bad shape – even though it does have a huge crack in it.

The bell weighs nearly 14 tonnes and it cracked in 1859 when it was first bonged with a hammer that was way too heavy.

The crack was never repaired. Instead the bell was rotated one eighth of a turn and a lighter (200kg) hammer was installed. The cracked bell has a characteristic sound which we have all grown to love.

Big Ben strikes. UK Parliament.

Instead, it is the Elizabeth Tower (1859) and the clock mechanism (1854), designed by Denison and Airy, that need attention.

Any building or machine needs regular maintenance – we paint our doors and windows when they need it and we repair or replace our cars quite routinely. It is convenient to choose a day when we’re out of the house to paint the doors, or when we don’t need the car to repair the brakes. But a clock just doesn’t stop – especially not a clock as iconic as the Great Clock at the Palace of Westminster.

Repairs to the tower are long overdue. There is corrosion damage to the cast iron roof and to the belfry structure which keeps the bells in place. There is water damage to the masonry and condensation problems will be addressed, too. There are plumbing and electrical works to be done for a lift to be installed in one of the ventilation shafts, toilet facilities and the fitting of low-energy lighting.

Marvel of engineering

The clock mechanism itself is remarkable. In its 162-year history it has only had one major breakdown. In 1976 the speed regulator for the chimes broke and the mechanism sped up to destruction. The resulting damage took months to repair.

The weights that drive the clock are, like the bells and hammers, unimaginably huge. The “drive train” that keeps the pendulum swinging and that turns the hands is driven by a weight of about 100kg. Two other weights that ring the bells are each over a tonne. If any of these weights falls out of control (as in the 1976 incident), they could do a lot of damage.

The pendulum suspension spring is especially critical because it holds up the huge pendulum bob which weighs 321kg. The swinging pendulum releases the “escapement” every two seconds which then turns the hands on the clock’s four faces. If you look very closely, you will see that the minute hand doesn’t move smoothly but it sits still most of the time, only moving on each tick by 1.5cm.

The pendulum swings back and forth 21,600 times a day. That’s nearly 8m times a year, bending the pendulum spring. Like any metal, it has the potential to suffer from fatigue. The pendulum needs to be lifted out of the clock so that the spring can be closely inspected.

The clock derives its remarkable accuracy in part from the temperature compensation which is built into the construction of the pendulum. This was yet another of John Harrison’s genius ideas (you probably know him from longitude fame). He came up with the solution of using metals of differing temperature expansion coefficient so that the pendulum doesn’t change in length as the temperature changes with the seasons.

In the Westminster clock, the pendulum shaft is made of concentric tubes of steel and zinc. A similar construction is described for the clock in Trinity College Cambridge and near perfect temperature compensation can be achieved. But zinc is a ductile metal and the tube deforms with time under the heavy load of the 321kg pendulum bob. This “creeping” will cause the temperature compensation to jam up and become less effective.

So stopping the clock will also be a good opportunity to dismantle the pendulum completely and to check that the zinc tube is sliding freely. This in itself is a few days' work.

What makes it tick

But the truly clever bit of this clock is the escapement. All clocks have one - it’s what makes the clock tick, quite literally. Denison developed his new gravity escapement especially for the Westminster clock. It decouples the driving force of the falling weight from the periodic force that maintains the motion of the pendulum. To this day, the best tower clocks in England use the gravity escapement leading to remarkable accuracy – better even than that of your quartz crystal wrist watch.

In Denison’s gravity escapement, the “tick” is the impact of the “legs” of the escapement colliding with hardened steel seats. Each collision causes microscopic damage which, accumulated over millions of collisions per year, causes wear and tear affecting the accuracy of the clock. It is impossible to inspect the escapement without stopping the clock. Part of the maintenance proposed during this stoppage is a thorough overhaul of the escapement and the other workings of the clock.

The Westminster clock is a remarkable icon for London and for England. For more than 150 years it has reminded us of each hour, tirelessly. That’s what I love about clocks – they seem to carry on without a fuss. But every now and then even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care. After this period of pampering, “Big Ben” ought to be set for another 100 or so years of trouble-free running.

The Conversation

Hugh Hunt is a Reader in Engineering Dynamics and Vibration at the University of Cambridge.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.