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.

Photo: Getty
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The Liberal Democrats are back - and the Tories should be worried

A Liberal revival could do Theresa May real damage in the south.

There's life in the Liberal Democrats yet. The Conservative majority in Witney has been slashed, with lawyer and nominative determinism case study Robert Courts elected, but with a much reduced majority.

It's down in both absolute terms, from 25,155 to 5,702, but it's never wise to worry too much about raw numbers in by-elections. The percentages tell us a lot more, and there's considerable cause for alarm in the Tory camp as far as they are concerned: the Conservative vote down from 60 per cent to 45 per cent.

(On a side note, I wouldn’t read much of anything into the fact that Labour slipped to third. It has never been a happy hunting ground for them and their vote was squeezed less by the Liberal Democrats than you’d perhaps expect.)

And what about those Liberal Democrats, eh? They've surged from fourth place to second, a 23.5 per cent increase in their vote, a 19.3 swing from Conservative to Liberal, the biggest towards that party in two decades.

One thing is clear: the "Liberal Democrat fightback" is not just a hashtag. The party has been doing particularly well in affluent Conservative areas that voted to stay in the European Union. (It's worth noting that one seat that very much fits that profile is Theresa May's own stomping ground of Maidenhead.)

It means that if, as looks likely, Zac Goldsmith triggers a by-election over Heathrow, the Liberal Democrats will consider themselves favourites if they can find a top-tier candidate with decent local connections. They also start with their by-election machine having done very well indeed out of what you might call its “open beta” in Witney. The county council elections next year, too, should be low hanging fruit for 

As Sam Coates reports in the Times this morning, there are growing calls from MPs and ministers that May should go to the country while the going's good, calls that will only be intensified by the going-over that the PM got in Brussels last night. And now, for marginal Conservatives in the south-west especially, it's just just the pressure points of the Brexit talks that should worry them - it's that with every day between now and the next election, the Liberal Democrats may have another day to get their feet back under the table.

This originally appeared in Morning Call, my daily guide to what's going on in politics and the papers. It's free, and you can subscribe here. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.