The retail sector falls back to earth with a bump

September’s sales numbers aren't cause for alarm though.

After a run of reasonably solid growth, September’s sales numbers bring the retail sector back to earth with a slight bump. Growth is still present, which indicates that there is still forward momentum in the consumer recovery, but it has moderated significantly from the relatively heady levels seen in both July and August. While this might be the cause of some initial concern, it should not necessarily be a cause for alarm.

In the first instance, patterns of recovery are rarely even: seeing month on month of ever inflated growth certainly makes for a pleasing looking chart but, judging by historic standards, the exits from downturns are normally characterised by periods of growth which wax and wane. In essence, a reduced growth rate is not an indication of impending doom for the retail sector.

The further point to make is that, to a degree, a shallower growth rate was always to be expected as we exited the summer months. The sun had an overall net positive impact on sales which, when combined with some modest growth due to the natural uptick in consumer sentiment and spending, created some very rosy looking figures. This was never likely to continue ad infinitum, and what we are now seeing is the more natural, underlying growth rate which is reflective of the true pace of recovery.

Of course, the outturn could well have been different should the weather had been firmly on the side of retail. Unfortunately, it wasn’t. As autumn and early winter stock arrived on the shop floor what most retailers, especially those in clothing, wanted was a sharp cold snap; what they got was rather murky but fairly warm and humid weather. This tells us something interesting about the consumer psyche: while many people do have the capacity to spend, large numbers are reluctant to do so unless they feel a real need or justification. Before the downturn it is likely many consumers would have been willing to invest in a new coat in anticipation of colder weather to come; nowadays attitudes have hardened and significant numbers will only buy if and when the need arises. This change, a switch to a slightly more hand-to-mouth pattern of purchasing if you will, ultimately means retail growth rates are much chopper and leaves retailers far more exposed to the vagaries of the weather than they once were.

Our view is that this consumer mindset will prevail, even as we move into recovery. As such, we are unlikely to see retail rocket back to health; instead, it will more likely take a rather gentle upward glide path. Ultimately, the positive news is that, the exactitudes of the numbers aside, upward momentum still remains.

Photograph: Getty Images

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Will Euroscepticism prove an unbeatable advantage in the Conservative leadership race?

Conservative members who are eager for Brexit are still searching for a heavyweight champion - and they could yet inherit the earth.

Put your money on Liam Fox? The former Defence Secretary has been given a boost by the news that ConservativeHome’s rolling survey of party members preferences for the next Conservative leader. Jeremy Wilson at BusinessInsider and James Millar at the Sunday Post have both tipped Fox for the top job.

Are they right? The expectation among Conservative MPs is that there will be several candidates from the Tory right: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and potentially Owen Paterson could all be candidates, while Boris Johnson, in the words of one: “rides both horses – is he the candidate of the left, of the right, or both?”

MPs will whittle down the field of candidates to a top two, who will then be voted on by the membership.  (As Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, notes in his interview with my colleague George Eaton, Conservative MPs could choose to offer a wider field if they so desired, but would be unlikely to surrender more power to party activists.)

The extreme likelihood is that that contest will be between two candidates: George Osborne and not-George Osborne.  “We know that the Chancellor has a bye to the final,” one minister observes, “But once you’re in the final – well, then it’s anyone’s game.”

Could “not-George Osborne” be Liam Fox? Well, the difficulty, as one MP observes, is we don’t really know what the Conservative leadership election is about:

“We don’t even know what the questions are to which the candidates will attempt to present themselves as the answer. Usually, that question would be: who can win us the election? But now that Labour have Corbyn, that question is taken care of.”

So what’s the question that MPs will be asking? We simply don’t know – and it may be that they come to a very different conclusion to their members, just as in 2001, when Ken Clarke won among MPs – before being defeated in a landslide by Conservative activists.

Much depends not only on the outcome of the European referendum, but also on its conduct. If the contest is particularly bruising, it may be that MPs are looking for a candidate who will “heal and settle”, in the words of one. That would disadvantage Fox, who will likely be a combative presence in the European referendum, and could benefit Boris Johnson, who, as one MP put it, “rides both horses” and will be less intimately linked with the referendum and its outcome than Osborne.

But equally, it could be that Euroscepticism proves to be a less powerful card than we currently expect. Ignoring the not inconsiderable organisational hurdles that have to be cleared to beat Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and potentially any or all of the “next generation” of Sajid Javid, Nicky Morgan or Stephen Crabb, we simply don’t know what the reaction of Conservative members to the In-Out referendum will be.

Firstly, there’s a non-trivial possibility that Leave could still win, despite its difficulties at centre-forward. The incentive to “reward” an Outer will be smaller. But if Britain votes to Remain – and if that vote is seen by Conservative members as the result of “dirty tricks” by the Conservative leadership – it could be that many members, far from sticking around for another three to four years to vote in the election, simply decide to leave. The last time that Cameron went against the dearest instincts of many of his party grassroots, the result was victory for the Prime Minister – and an activist base that, as the result of defections to Ukip and cancelled membership fees, is more socially liberal and more sympathetic to Cameron than it was before. Don’t forget that, for all the worry about “entryism” in the Labour leadership, it was “exitism” – of Labour members who supported David Miliband and liked the New Labour years  - that shifted that party towards Jeremy Corbyn.

It could be that if – as Brady predicts in this week’s New Statesman – the final two is an Inner and an Outer, the Eurosceptic candidate finds that the members who might have backed them are simply no longer around.

It comes back to the biggest known unknown in the race to succeed Cameron: Conservative members. For the first time in British political history, a Prime Minister will be chosen, not by MPs with an electoral mandate of their own or by voters at a general election but by an entirelyself-selecting group: party members. And we simply don't know enough about what they feel - yet. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.