British Retail Consortium’s three-month average, which irons out distorting effect of Easter, shows growth slowed to 2.6%
Retailers suffered a 2.2% drop in sales last month compared with a year ago, thanks to the timing of Easter and wintry weather, according to industry figures.
The British Retail Consortium’s three-month total growth average, which irons out the distorting effect of Easter falling in April last year and March this year, was 2.6%. That was a slower pace of growth than in the three months to February and March and the BRC said a recovery in consumer spending remained elusive.
“There’s a sense that people are more prepared to spend than they were but chief executives are telling me that’s volatile. A convincing trend towards revival is hard to spot and competitive pricing is still critical to generating sales,” said the BRC’s director general Helen Dickinson.
But April was not all bad, she stressed, noting that for non-food sales it was better than March once the Easter distortion was taken away.
“Wintry weather, followed by the arrival of sun, had a big influence on some retailers,” she said. “Fashion sales were weak early in the month but that was almost entirely made up later when signs of spring arrived. While health and beauty gained both ways with strong sales of cold and flu remedies and then of bronzing and skin care products.”
Consumers under pressure as the cost of non-food goods increased for the first time in 15 months and shop prices rose at their fastest rate since December
Shop prices last month rose at their fastest pace since December as the cost of non-food goods increased for the first time in more than a year, new figures show.
Overall shop price inflation rose to 1.4% in March from 1.1% in February, according to the British Retail Consortium (BRC).
Food price inflation remained stubbornly high at 3.5% in March, piling more pressure on cash-strapped consumers, while prices of non-food goods started rising for the first time in 15 months.
Prices rose across health and beauty products, stationery and DIY and gardening goods and books, the BRC said.
It added that the rate of year-on-year price deflation in shoes, footwear and electrical goods slowed to 2.2% from 4.2% in February.
That meant overall non-food inflation stood at 0.2% in March, compared with 0.4% deflation in February.
Helen Dickinson, BRC director general, said the figures suggest “demand is strengthening and promotions are less widespread than last year”.
She said: “Total inflation is at its highest rate since December, again reflecting that many retailers went into the new year with less stock to clear so discounting is less extensive compared with 2012.”
Food prices continue to be driven by higher inflation in fruit, fish and meat, which is offsetting slower inflation for vegetables and dairy products.
But the BRC said the prolonged spell of cold and wet weather could lead to deeper discounting on spring lines emerging in figures for April.
Mike Watkins, head of retailer and business insight at Nielsen, said: “As discretionary spend for the next few months is expected to remain flat at best, what upward pressure there is on prices is not coming from the consumer at the moment.”
BRC reports weakest sales growth in 11 months as shoppers shy away from spending on big-ticket and luxury items
Hopes the economy is on the road to recovery have been dampened by figures showing retail sales stalled last month and growth in Britain’s services sector almost ground to a standstill.
Britons shied away from spending on big-ticket and luxury items in October, leading to the weakest sales growth in almost a year, according to the British Retail Consortium (BRC). Meanwhile, expansion in the UK’s services sector – which accounts for three-quarters of UK GDP – slowed to a crawl as new business failed to make up for projects completed during the month.
Chancellor George Osborne had seized on news last month that the economy emerged from double-dip recession, growing by 1% in the third quarter of 2012, as evidence that his policies had put Britain “on the right track”. But early signs for the fourth quarter now suggest the economy could shrink again, raising the prospect of a triple-dip recession.
Rob Wood, an analyst at Berenberg Bank, said: “With manufacturing output suffering from weak exports and domestic demand, and the service sector flirting with contraction, a fall in GDP in the fourth quarter now looks most likely.”
The BRC said like-for-like sales fell 0.1% last month, compared with October last year. It was a crushing blow after September’s figures, which showed growth of 1.5%, had raised hopes Britons had got used to austerity and were out spending again. Averaged out over the past three months, like-for-like sales growth was only 0.4% a month – the worst in 11 months.
Stephen Robertson, director general of the BRC, said: “Unfortunately it looks like the modest sales revival we saw in September was something of a false dawn. The disappointing figures are a reminder of the difficult economic realities many are still facing. Falling consumer confidence means people are limiting spending to essential items and are cautious about committing to big-ticket and discretionary buying.”
Rising prices helped drive total food sales up by an average of 3.4% but, stripping out the impact of inflation, volumes of food sales were stagnant. The worst hit sector was home accessories, which the BRC said was not considered an essential “for the consumer with little spare money”.
Household spending overall dropped by almost 3% in October, according to Visa. Steve Perry, commercial director at Visa Europe, said: “The strong growth witnessed in recent months went into decline. October’s figures will take some of the gloss off recent optimism as they are a timely reminder that household finances remain under pressure and consumers are exercising caution.”
A forward-looking survey of the services sector suggests this sluggish growth is likely to continue in the fourth quarter. The Markit/CIPS Purchasing Managers’ Index for the services sector dropped to 50.6 last month from 52.2 in September, only just above the 50 mark that separates growth from contraction. It is the slowest pace of growth in almost two years and significantly below analyst expectations of a much smaller decline to 52.
Andrew Harker, economist at Markit, said: “Although there are signs of improvements, [companies surveyed] still referred to the fragility of both demand and confidence among clients. The expectation among firms is for activity to improve over the coming year, but the road to full economic recovery still looks to be a long one.”
The gloomy survey is likely to reignite the debate over whether the Bank of England will expand its quantitative easing programme this week. Howard Archer of IHS Global Insight said: “While we just about still lean towards the view that the Bank of England will hold off from more QE for now and monitor how the economy is developing and what impact the Funding for Lending Scheme is having, it is looking an extremely tight call.”
While new orders in the services sector grew in October – largely due to overseas demand – they did so at a slower pace than in September and companies said incoming new business did not make up for the completion of existing projects.
For the second month running, employers in the services sector cut jobs in October. Business costs rose but companies were reluctant to pass them on to customers as a result of strong competition. Companies did, however, remain relatively optimistic, with 42% of those surveyed forecasting that service sector activity will improve over the next 12 months.
Retail bodies say they have already signed up to much stricter standards on sustainable palm oil than the government’s pledge
Retail bodies and charities have criticised the government for setting “weak” targets on the use of sustainable palm oil.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) yesterday asked retailers, manufacturers and charities to sign up to “work towards” ensuring that, by 2015, all palm oil used in food and other products is responsibly produced and does not contribute to deforestation.
But the British Retail Consortium (BRC) said that while the government deserved praise for putting the palm oil issue on the agenda, many of its members had already made more ambitious commitments. The BRC wants other sectors to commit to nothing less than the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) standards for sustainable palm oil.
Richard Dodd, head of BRC media and campaigns, said: “Manufacturers have not been prepared to sign up to only using RSPO-certified palm oil by end of 2015. The commitment they have signed up to has been watered down, as it doesn’t have a specific timetable and only a commitment to ‘work towards’ using 100% sustainable palm oil. In order to get the wide range of signatories, the pledge that Defra has settled for is not as good as it should have been, and not as good as the one retailers have already made.
“[The RSPO] is the only worthwhile standard and the one retailers have committed to.”
BRC director of food and sustainability, Andrew Opie, said: “If the government is serious about achieving comprehensive change in the way palm oil is produced and saving rainforest habitats, it should be pushing other sectors to follow retailers’ lead.
“Retailers have already pledged to meet the world’s most rigorous standards on 100% certified sustainable palm oil, and said they will do it by the end of 2015, because that’s the way to generate a market for sustainable product and eliminate the rest.”
The environment minister, Richard Benyon, said the government would lead the way by ensuring that only environmentally friendly-sourced palm oil would be used in central government food and catering services.
“People want to know that the products they are using are not contributing to deforestation and climate change and many UK businesses are already starting to make changes. Producers, manufacturers and charities will continue working together to speed up the move to 100% sustainable palm oil in everyday products,” he said.
Palm oil is one of the world’s most rapidly expanding food crops and used extensively in the food industry as frying fats, and as an ingredient in biscuits, margarine, snacks and bakery products. It is also used in the production of biodiesel, in animal feed, soaps and other cleaning products and cosmetics. Its production has been linked to the destruction of rainforest habitats in countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand, and it is a rising source of greenhouse gas emissions, which come from clearing forests for crop cultivation.
According to Eurostat data, the UK imported 397,000 metric tonnes of palm oil and 53,000 metric tonnes of palm kernel oil in 2011. Defra has estimated that only 24% was sourced from sustainably certified plantations.
Defra’s statement coincides with the annual conference on the ingredient, held by the RSPO in Singapore. Data released by the RSPO this week showed that UK supermarkets including the Co-operative, Waitrose, Marks & Spencer and Sainsbury’s, and manufacturers like United Biscuits, Warburtons and Burton’s food are already at – or very close to – using 100% RSPO-certified palm oil.
Waitrose said on Tuesday that it would reach its target of 100% fully sustainable palm oil by the end of this year. The supermarket lists palm oil in its ingredients and claims to be the first retailer to use the RSPO logo on its soap. Riyaz Dhalla, Waitrose senior technologist, said: “This is an important issue for our customers and we’re delighted to be able to help them make an ethical purchasing decision.”
The Food and Drink Federation (FDF) said many food and drink manufacturers had made substantial progress. The FDF director of sustainability, Andrew Kuyk, said: “Many food and drink manufacturers have in place long-standing commitments to using 100% certified sustainable palm oil and the national statement is an important step towards a wider reassurance for consumers that the products they enjoy contain oil from environmentally friendly sources.”
Adam Harrison of WWF International – another RSPO member – said that Defra’s move was significant, but given the urgency of the situation relating to the impacts on natural habitats relating to palm oil production, the statement needed to go further.
“The impacts of irresponsible and unsustainable palm oil expansion to meet growing demand are completely unacceptable in terms of deforestation, damage to wildlife and climate change. The urgency of the problem needs an equally urgent response. Whilst we welcome the national statement we are concerned that it does not convey clearly enough the need to take action now.
Palm oil is a “hidden oil” for consumers. Currently in the EU, palm oil can be labelled as vegetable oil, meaning that consumers cannot easily make an educated purchasing choice.
Last year it was announced that changes to food labelling would make it easier for consumers to identify products containing palm oil. Changes to the European Food Information Regulations will mean labels have to identify the specific types of vegetable oils that have been used. Businesses are already starting to implement the change, which will be mandatory on all food products from 13 December 2014.
Consumers are cautiously returning to shops as squeeze on disposable income eases, says British Retail Consortium
UK consumers are getting used to tougher times and have started shopping again, albeit cautiously.
In a week where the chancellor warned that austerity could continue until 2018, data shows Britons are adapting to the grim economic climate and have stopped putting off purchases indefinitely. The British Retail Consortium said like-for-like sales climbed 1.5% in September compared with the same period last year.
Stephen Robertson, director general of the BRC, said: “Difficult has become the new norm. Customers are still cautious but less fearful than they were. The squeeze on disposable incomes has eased for some and, along with lots of discounts, left them feeling it’s time to stop postponing spending.”
September’s sales growth was a significant improvement on August, when sales dipped 0.4% year-on-year, as the Olympics feelgood factor failed to translate into a boost for retailers.
Victoria Clarke at Investec said: “We’ve seen a weak summer with the weather, jubilee and the Olympics. But there was a question of how much was genuine weakness and how much was due to these factors.”
The BRC data suggests consumers have started spending again, which should bolster official retail sales figures out later this month.
Sales of children’s clothes rose in September as parents did the back-to-school shopping they had put off in August. The sudden onset of wintry weather in mid-September also helped drive sales of jumpers and coats.
Clarke said: “There is a disconnect between how fearful [people] are about the economic backdrop, their personal circumstances and their appetite to spend. When it’s cold enough and you need a coat, if possible, you get out and buy one.”
The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors also struck a cautiously optimistic note on Tuesday, saying sales of homes were picking up and the housing market should see “a slightly stronger end to the year”.
House prices are still falling but at a slower pace in recent months, leading economists to suggest prices could be bottoming out. Clarke said: “We are getting there. On these figures and recent house price surveys, it suggests there is some stabilisation in house prices, which we would expect to turn into modest growth in 2013.”
London remained the only region where more surveyors are reporting price rises rather than falls, but the Rics survey pointed to house prices remaining flat this year.
The organisation said chartered surveyors’ expectations for sales had picked up, buoyed by hopes that government initiatives, such as the Funding for Lending scheme, would make it easier for prospective buyers.
Expectations of sales picked up, with 26% more respondents expecting the number of transactions to increase during the final three months of the year than decrease.
British Retail Consortium data shows August was weakest month for sales growth this year
Retailers hoping that the feelgood factor from the London 2012 Olympics would translate into a boost for sales have been left disappointed after data from the British Retail Consortium showed that August was the weakest month for sales growth so far this year.
Stephen Robertson, director general of the BRC, said: “There’s no evidence here of any Olympic boost to retail sales overall. Sadly, apart from April – distorted by Easter timings – August saw the worst sales growth this year”.
The findings of the monthly survey contrast with the predictions of many retailers and experts who had expected the London Games to bolster spending even after the West End of London was quiet during the early part of August when the competition began.
On a like-for-like basis, which strips out new store openings, sales by value were down by 0.4% on the same month a year ago, when they fell 0.6%. With new openings included, sales were up 1.6% – compared with a 1.5% rise in August 2011. Both these figures are the lowest since November last year.
The BRC survey found that the comparatively empty shopping streets in London were offset by a better performance in other parts of the country and that there had been a “mild” boost to sales of party food and drink.
But food and drink sales did not compensate for what Robertson described as a “really weak performance for non-food goods”. Clothing had a “very unusual and rather disappointing month” although large screen TVs sold well in the first week of the Olympics.
The BRC’s findings of a boost to sales of party food tallied with figures from market research company Nielsen which found that sales growth for the UK’s leading supermarkets during the four weeks to the end of 18 August was 3.5% higher than the same period a year ago. Soft drinks sales increased 10% in value year-on-year, confectionery rising 8% and crisps and snacks increased 7%.
“Retailers have clearly looked to maximise the sales opportunity around the London 2012 Olympics… Tesco, in particular, had some very attractive offers during July and August which will have helped to increase the frequency of shoppers’ visits,” said Mike Watkins, Nielsen’s UK head of retailer insight .
The BRC said that a huge impact was felt online where there was growth of 4.8% in August – the lowest since such data was first collected in October 2008 – although Robertson said this was likely to be little more than an “interlude” in a trend of rapid expansion in online shopping.
“It’s clear people were absorbed by the magnificent Olympics and had little interest in shopping, especially for major items… Some retailers told us online activity was particularly thin in the evenings. If people weren’t watching television they were more likely to be following the sport on PCs and mobile devices rather than shopping,” Robertson said.
But while retailers were disappointed by trading in August, other data published on Monday showed that the decline in UK manufacturing slowed in August, raising hopes that Britain could emerge from recession this year.
The data could reinforce expectations that the Bank of England will not announce any increase to the £375bn quantitative easing programme, and will keep rates on hold at 0.5% when it meets on Thursday.
The manufacturing PMI jumped to a four-month high of 49.5 in August, close to the 50 mark that separates growth from contraction. Economists had been expecting an improvement from July – when the index hit a three-year low of 45.2 – but consensus forecasts were for a reading of just 46.1.
Britain slumped into a double-dip recession at the start of the year and the Office for National Statistics estimates the economy shrank another 0.5% in the second quarter.
August is traditionally a weak month for retail sales and the next three months in the run up to Christmas shopping season will be watched more closely as they have an impact on retailers’ profitability, according to Helen Dickinson, head of retail at KPMG which compiles the survey with the BRC.
Robertson added: “As summer gives way to the all-important Christmas run-up, retailers will be hoping sales that didn’t happen in August have been postponed and not lost entirely.”
Shoppers celebrated the arrival of summer by spending more on food and drink, summer clothes, lawnmowers and garden furniture
Sunnier weather in May prompted shoppers to splurge on ice cream, barbecue food and shorts, setting retailers’ tills ringing. But despite a bounceback in retail sales last month, consumers remain cautious about spending on bigger items, the latest monthly snapshop from the British Retail Consortium shows.
As wet and cold weather in the first half of the month gave way to warmer temperatures in the final week, shoppers celebrated the arrival of summer by spending more on food and drink, summer clothes, lawnmowers and garden furniture. UK retail sales climbed 1.3% from May 2011 on a like-for-like basis, although the improvement was not enough to offset April’s 3.3% annual drop, according to the BRC. Total sales, including new shops, rose 3.4% last month against a 1% fall in April.
While the first weeks of May saw people buying jeans and knitwear, many more were buying skirts, shorts, swimwear and sandals by the end of the month. Wedges were particularly popular while flat shoes and pumps also sold well thanks to promotions, which were more widespread than last year. Tight budgets meant that customers favoured value lines and plain styles which can be worn for work as well as leisure.
Womenswear had its best growth so far this year and and children’s clothes saw a double-digit uplift in sales, while garden centres enjoyed a surge in the number of people investing in gardening tools and new lawnmowers to tackle overgrown grass. Some retailers said April’s downpours led to pent-up demand which was unleashed at the first sign of summer, with shoppers rushing to update their summer wardrobes.
Electrical retailers benefited from the launch of the iPad 3 and new Kindle while television sales were boosted by the digital switchover. White goods sales were steady and often for replacement rather than upgrade, and many were promotion-driven at the expense of profit margins, especially for larger purchases.
Stephen Robertson, BRC director general, said: “Much of the month’s positive performance can be attributed to spending in the final week when consumers responded enthusiastically to the sun coming out. The performance of food retailers was more consistent across the month. Retailers will be hoping the boost continues, sustained by this summer’s celebrations and sporting events.”
Retailers have also been counting on a boost from the jubilee celebrations last weekend, which saw fruit, wine and garden products fly off the shelves. Experts reckon up to £823m could have been spent during the four-day celebrations, with supermarkets seen as the main winners. With the Euro 2012 football tournament kicking off on Friday, followed by the London Olympics in July, shops hope to capitalise on the feelgood factor to make up lost ground after a dismal spring. A lot hinges on the weather, though, which has taken a turn for the worse again.
Helen Dickinson, head of retail at KPMG, said: “Retailers are hoping that the Jubilee celebrations will have helped to pull out them of the mire, but a short-term patriotic spending spree will not overcome the underlying difficulties facing the industry – which remains under pressure from a combination of declining consumer confidence and squeezed incomes.”
Howard Archer, chief UK and European economist at IHS Global Insight, agreed. “Although consumer confidence improved in May, it is still extremely low compared to long-term norms, which is hardly surprising given that the UK is back in recession and there is major uncertainty over the situation in Greece/eurozone and how this could hit the UK.”
Consumer price index fell to 3% in April as high street discounting took pressure off households
Food price inflation stabilised last month as rising fuel and property bills were offset by a decline in the cost of raw materials.
The price of food in May was up 4.3% on 2011 levels – the same rate of increase as recorded in April. A decline in the rate of price increases for store cupboard food products was offset by faster rising fresh food prices.
Apart from a blip in March, food inflation has been steady since last October.
Data from the British Retail Consortium released on Wednesday also showed that the shop price of non-food goods is down on 2011 levels for the fourth month in a row. However, the rate of decline is slowing.
Stephen Robertson, director general of the BRC, said the latest decline was “chiefly thanks to price cutting on clothing, footwear and electricals” as retailers cut margins to persuade consumers to spend.
He added that the slowdown in non-food price cuts – from -0.5% in April to -0.1% in May – was because some retailers were offering “margin-sapping discounts which reached unsustainable levels” and had been forced to raise their prices.
Overall shop price inflation, says the BRC, is running at 1.5%, slightly ahead of April’s 1.3%.
The official measure of inflation – the consumer price index – fell to 3% in April, a 26-month low, as high street discounting took the pressure off households. Families have been battling with high inflation and sluggish wage growth, which in turn has hit the retail sector.
In its latest quarterly inflation report, the Bank of England raised its inflation forecast from that in February’s report, partly reflecting higher than expected energy prices as well as changes to indirect taxes announced in the budget. The Bank now expects inflation to return to its 2% target rate in the third quarter of 2013, nine months later than previously forecast.
Supermarket offers and easing world prices for commodities such as wheat and sugar bringing down food cost
There was some good(ish) news for hard-pressed consumers on Tuesday as figures pointed to a slowdown in the march of food prices. Higher food and fuel prices are making us all feel poorer, and the British Retail Consortium’s (BRC) monthly report recorded food inflation slowing sharply from the 5.4% recorded in March to 4.3% in April.
A year ago, rocketing animal feed and ingredient costs were fuelling inflation, but easing world prices for commodities such as wheat and sugar are trickling down to the checkouts. An escalation of hostilities between the supermarkets, battling for custom in a turgid market, is also helping. Both food and clothing retailers “continue to discount hard”, says the BRC, pointing to supermarkets where a third of products are on promotion.
The figures offer consumers at the very least “some reasons to be cheerful” but the BRC’s not reaching for the party poppers yet, admitting “where food prices go next is hard to predict” not least because of the vagaries of the global supply chain – new flashpoints include soyabeans and corn – and of course the weather.
On the retailer front, “margin- slashing discounting cannot be sustained for ever”, it warns. It’s a messy picture that suggests inflation is going to be sticking with us for a while.
February’s 0.2% uptick allays fears of Britain slipping back into recession
UK consumer spending edged up for the second month running in February, according to new figures fanning hopes that the economy enjoyed a modest bounce at the start of the year.
Helping to allay fears that the UK had slipped back into recession, payment company Visa Europe said on Wednesday that consumer spending rose 0.2% on the month, adding to January’s 0.2% uptick.
Visa, which said transactions on its cards accounted for £1 in every £3 of UK spending, cautioned however that spending was down 1.3% on a less volatile three-month on three-month basis. On the year to the end of February, spending fell 1.7%.
Steve Perry, commercial director of Visa Europe, said: “February saw the first consecutive month-on-month increase in consumer spending since last July … further bolstering confidence that the economy may be slowly returning to growth.
“However, the underlining trend revealed by the three-month on three-month data remains subdued, suggesting that we still have a way to go before we can talk of a full recovery.”
Behind the headline numbers was further evidence that people are increasingly turning to the internet to find bargains. Online spending rose 4.4%.
There were also signs of higher spending on more discretionary items, with clothing and footwear up 7.4% and hotels and restaurants up 6.9%.
A separate report suggests retailers are still struggling to raise prices against a backdrop of weak consumer confidence. Shop price inflation slowed to just 1.2% in February according to the British Retail Consortium (BRC).
The slowdown came as the non-food category turned deflationary for the first time in more than two years. Prices were down 0.7% on the BRC-Nielsen shop price index.
BRC head Stephen Robertson said: “While fuel and utility bills are eating up an ever bigger proportion of household budgets, many goods sold by retailers now cost less than they did a year ago. Clothing, electricals and furniture are all cheaper than at this time in 2011 as retailers respond to the squeeze on personal finances by cutting prices, reducing their own underlying profitability.”
Food prices meanwhile recovered somewhat to 4.2% from January’s 19-month low of 3.7%, with the BRC blaming higher transport costs for the increase.
The lobby group took the modest inflation rate as an opportunity to call on the chancellor, George Osborne, for help for businesses at this month’s budget.
“When shop prices are up by just 1.2% there’s even less justification for the eye-watering 5.6% business rates rise planned for April. Reducing this huge hike in trading costs should be a priority for the budget,” said Robertson.