Forecasters predict snow and downpours in the coldest start to May in 70 years with grim effect on consumer spending
It was not meant to be like this. A bank holiday weekend with the mere hint of sun sees streams of motorists queuing to enter the Kentish harbour town of Whitstable. But yesterday afternoon the town’s car parks were half empty as day trippers stayed away, opting not to brave the icy blasts whipping off the grey North Sea.
People were out walking around the town, but their hands were firmly in their pockets and their heads bowed against the wind. Few were spending money. Quaint cafes by the quayside waited for business; ice-cream kiosks where queues 30 deep have been known were devoid of customers. For many of the town’s shopkeepers, dependent on the down-from-London brigade for their livelihoods, the bitter bank holiday weekend was a major setback after weeks of poor weather.
“You compare it with last year, when from March through to June we had beautiful weather,” said Keith Webber, who runs an antiques store in one of the huts in the harbour village by the quayside. “Last weekend was the first weekend in the four years I’ve been working here that I did not open; the weather was so bad.” Webber admitted he was in half a mind about whether to open this weekend. “We are so weather orientated down here. If it’s a sunny weekend we can guarantee good business, but a day like today people keep their hands in their pockets and go to the pub.”
The poor weather is coming at the worst possible time for retailers. “There can’t be a retailer who will say the economic downturn isn’t having an effect,” Webber said. “You look at Tesco and Morrisons, they are feeling the effects, so it’s no wonder I’m finding it hard to get people to buy what are effectively luxury items they don’t really need.”
Andy Thomas, who for the past 20 years has run Kites & Things, a toy and hobbies store a few hundred metres from the harbourside in the town’s high street, said business had been difficult since 2008, when Northern Rock nearly went under.
“It’s amazing how many independent butchers and bakers we’ve still got,” Thomas said. “It says a lot about the people of Whitstable. But the town is completely reliant on tourists. The atmosphere down here when it’s a sunny day is lovely, but [if] it’s pouring with rain it can be pointless opening.”
What a difference a year makes. On May Day last year millions of Britons were rubbing on sun lotion and firing up their barbecues.
But following an April full of floods, even more dismal weather will strike this weekend as temperatures drop around the country and the rain continues. The south-east and south-west of England are set to be the hardest hit, with many flood warnings still in place.
And there is little sign of the clouds clearing – the UK is expected to endure unseasonably poor weather until June. The combination of downpours in the south and snow and sleet in the north has left some forecasters predicting the coldest start to May for 70 years.
For DIY chains and garden centre retailers, the first May long weekend is the biggest of the year, accounting for roughly 5% of annual garden industry sales. The stakes are even higher this year after the wettest April on record wiped out half of the planting season.
“The bank holiday is even more important than usual given the exceptionally bad weather we have had during April,” said Gary Scroby, policy manager at the Horticultural Trades Association. “It was very bad news for the industry because people didn’t go to garden centres and buy plants.”
The mini heatwave in March helped fashion retailers but there are signs that trading has slumped after Britons were forced back into their winter clothes. The April deluge, say analysts, is causing clothing retailers to slash their prices on summer lines.
While fashion shops are suffering, chains such as John Lewis, which sell household goods as well, are prospering despite the recession. John Lewis’s weekly sales are up by more than 30%, albeit skewed by the weather: TV sales have shot up more than 60% in anticipation of a summer of sport – but sales of sandals and sunglasses are down by the same figure. Shopping centres are also benefiting. Robert Goodman, general manager of the Bluewater centre in Kent, said it anticipated more than 250,000 visitors, with products such as garden furniture, barbecue accessories and children’s outdoor toys and games expected to be in demand. “Feedback from shoppers is that planning for the summer has begun in earnest, and so we expect Bluewater to be busy throughout the long weekend,” he said.
The bad weather has resulted in cinema box office returns 4% up for the first four months of 2012. “The great British public went to the cinema over Easter,” said Mark Batey, chief executive of the Film Distributors’ Association, who said ticket sales hit £20m over the four-day break as Britons took in blockbusters such as The Hunger Games The May Day holiday used to see Britons press the button on neglected DIY tasks, but a stagnant housing market means people are more reluctant to undertake supposedly value-adding projects.
Households now spend £1.2bn less on DIY than they did in 2008, according to retail experts at Conlumino, making life tough for specialist chains such as B&Q, which has posted 100 demonstration videos on YouTube in an attempt to get beginners in the mood.
While in 2011 parts of the country were hotter than the Mediterranean in May, this year Met Office spokesman Dan Williams said the temperature would be 3-4C lower than the seasonal average of 15-16C. The disappointing weather at Easter left beaches deserted but some Britons, who were determined to enjoy the outdoors this time round, have already had their plans thwarted by the weather, taking to websites such as ukcampsite.co.uk to swap tales of woe, such as farmers calling to cancel bookings because sites were waterlogged. Many contributors had planned to attend the Badminton Horse Trials which have been cancelled for the first time since 1987 due to severe flooding.
One, posting under the username Landy-Trax, said: “We have just brought our van back from Badminton, we pulled in last Saturday and it was horrendous then. My husband was towing vehicles in with his Defender which is never a good sign at the start of the week!
“Needless to say we are gutted as we were exhibiting so have incurred huge financial losses as well.”
Still, it was not all bad news. Back in Whitstable the kite-surfers were having a ball, leaping high above the sea in the strong gusts of wind, their acrobatics watched forlornly by the seagulls, waiting to scavenge discarded chip wrappers that would never come.