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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Even before Brexit, immigrants are shunning the UK

The 49,000 fall in net migration will come at a cost.

Article 50 may not have been triggered yet but immigrants are already shunning the UK. The number of newcomers fell by 23,000 to 596,000 in the year to last September, with a sharp drop in migrants from the EU8 states (such as Poland and the Czech Republic). Some current residents are trying their luck elsewhere: emigration rose by 26,000 to 323,000. Consequently, net migration has fallen by 49,000 to 273,000, far above the government's target of "tens of thousands" but the lowest level since June 2014.

The causes of the UK's reduced attractiveness are not hard to discern. The pound’s depreciation (which makes British wages less competitive), the spectre of Brexit and a rise in hate crimes and xenophobia are likely to be the main deterrents (though numbers from Romania and Bulgaria remain healthy). Ministers have publicly welcomed the figures but many privately acknowledge that they come at a price. The OBR recently forecast that lower migration would cost £6bn a year by 2020-21. As well as reflecting weaker growth, reduced immigration is likely to reinforce it. Migrants pay far more in tax than they claim in benefits, with a net contribution of £7bn a year. An OBR study found that with zero net migration, public sector debt would rise to 145 per cent of GDP by 2062-63, while with high net migration it would fall to 73 per cent.

Earlier this week, David Davis revealed the government's economic anxieties when he told a press conference in Estonia: "In the hospitality sector, hotels and restaurants, in the social care sector, working in agriculture, it will take time. It will be years and years before we get British citizens to do those jobs. Don’t expect just because we’re changing who makes the decision on the policy, the door will suddenly shut - it won’t."

But Theresa May, whose efforts to meet the net migration target as Home Secretary were obstructed by the Treasury, is determined to achieve a lasting reduction in immigration. George Osborne, her erstwhile adversary, recently remarked: "The government has chosen – and I respect this decision – not to make the economy the priority." But in her subsequent interview with the New Statesman, May argued: "It is possible to achieve an outcome which is both a good result for the economy and is a good result for people who want us to control immigration – to be able to set our own rules on the immigration of people coming from the European Union. It is perfectly possible to find an arrangement and a partnership with the EU which does that."

Much depends on how "good" is defined. The British economy is resilient enough to endure a small reduction in immigration but a dramatic fall would severely affect growth. Not since 1997 has "net migration" been in the "tens of thousands". As Davis acknowledged, the UK has since become dependent on high immigration. Both the government and voters may only miss migrants when they're gone.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.