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.

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 Managing Director of Conlumino

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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.