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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PMQs review: Theresa May shows how her confidence has grown

After her Brexit speech, the PM declared of Jeremy Corbyn: "I've got a plan - he doesn't have a clue". 

The woman derided as “Theresa Maybe” believes she has neutralised that charge. Following her Brexit speech, Theresa May cut a far more confident figure at today's PMQs. Jeremy Corbyn inevitably devoted all six of his questions to Europe but failed to land a definitive blow.

He began by denouncing May for “sidelining parliament” at the very moment the UK was supposedly reclaiming sovereignty (though he yesterday praised her for guaranteeing MPs would get a vote). “It’s not so much the Iron Lady as the irony lady,” he quipped. But May, who has sometimes faltered against Corbyn, had a ready retort. The Labour leader, she noted, had denounced the government for planning to leave the single market while simultaneously seeking “access” to it. Yet “access”, she went on, was precisely what Corbyn had demanded (seemingly having confused it with full membership). "I've got a plan - he doesn't have a clue,” she declared.

When Corbyn recalled May’s economic warnings during the referendum (“Does she now disagree with herself?”), the PM was able to reply: “I said if we voted to leave the EU the sky would not fall in and look at what has happened to our economic situation since we voted to leave the EU”.

Corbyn’s subsequent question on whether May would pay for single market access was less wounding than it might have been because she has consistently refused to rule out budget contributions (though yesterday emphasised that the days of “vast” payments were over).

When the Labour leader ended by rightly hailing the contribution immigrants made to public services (“The real pressure on public services comes from a government that slashed billions”), May took full opportunity of the chance to have the last word, launching a full-frontal attack on his leadership and a defence of hers. “There is indeed a difference - when I look at the issue of Brexit or any other issues like the NHS or social care, I consider the issue, I set out my plan and I stick to it. It's called leadership, he should try it some time.”

For May, life will soon get harder. Once Article 50 is triggered, it is the EU 27, not the UK, that will take back control (the withdrawal agreement must be approved by at least 72 per cent of member states). With MPs now guaranteed a vote on the final outcome, parliament will also reassert itself. But for now, May can reflect with satisfaction on her strengthened position.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.