Still awaiting the retail recovery

New figures out today show that the retail sector shows no signs of leaving its post-2008 slump

The retail sector today becomes the latest to report that they see no signs of an economic recovery on the horizon.

The February edition of the British Retail Consortium's (BRC) retail sales monitor shows that overall spending is up 2.3 per cent on last year, but taken on a like-for-like basis (a measure that excludes shops which have opened or closed in the past year, removing variation in floorspace as a source of change) it has dropped by 0.3 per cent.

KPMG co-publish the report, and their head of retail, Helen Dickinson, said:

Consumers remain reluctant to spend unless encouraged by promotional activity. Thus, while the market is still growing slightly in headline sales terms, profitability continues to be eroded through loss of margins.

The growth in non-food non-store sales - mail order, phone, and, increasingly, internet - dropped from earlier months, but still far outstripped the headline figures. At 9.9 per cent year-on-year, even a bad month still represents a strong future for the subsector.

A similar pattern in the US has led Slate's Matthew Yglesias to ponder whether they are seeing "the end of retail":

Tolstoy wrote that each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, but while each troubled big-box chain has a unique story, there’s a common enemy: the Internet.

Online retail sales this past November and December were up 15 percent compared with late 2010. In the third quarter of 2001, e-commerce sales were 3 percent of all retail (including food) sales in America. By the third quarter of 2011 (i.e., before the Christmas surge was fully incorporated into the data), that was over 12 percent. The move toward online shopping is relentless, driven by both convenience and the ability of Web-based retailers to largely avoid paying sales taxes. As mobile devices become even more useful for shopping, online retailers will grow faster.

The director general of the BRC, Stephen Robertson, doesn't quite agree with Yglesias' analysis, saying:

Online continues to grow faster than any other retail channel but the rate of increase in sales has slowed since Christmas and is well down on the kind of performance that was typical in 2010 and before.

Non-food sales have been worst affected by customers’ continuing fears about their own finances and prospects. That’s being felt online as well as in stores but the slowing of online growth may now also be reflecting some maturing of the market.

Whether or not the online sector is reaching maturity is precisely the issue at hand. It does seem like there is an element of wishful thinking on the part of Robertson, since year-on-year growth of almost 10 per cent is hardly representative of a mature industry.

But to see whether there is a genuine threat to brick-and-mortar retail, we'll have to wait until the sector as a whole regains its growth. If a significant proportion of the recovery gets taken up by the online outlets, then the rest of retail will really have to start worrying, and to know that requires a recovery which has been a long time coming.

The Amazon warehouse in Swansea, in the run-up to Christmas. Credit: Getty

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.