Beast from the East brought added chill to UK retail sector – latest data

By Terry Irwin |
Categories: Economy
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Retail sales in the UK fell in the year to March 2018, according to the latest monthly Distribution Trades Survey by the Confederation of British Industry (CBI).

The survey of 109 firms, including 53 retailers, revealed a weak month for retailers, with year-on-year sales volumes declining for the first time since October 2017.

In addition, sales for the time of year were significantly below normal, and by the greatest extent since April 2013. The volume of orders placed with suppliers, meanwhile, was broadly unchanged.

The fall in retail sales was broad-based. Lower sales at non-specialised stores (i.e. department stores), furniture and carpets, clothing, and other normal goods were the main drags on headline sales growth.

Looking ahead to next month, retailers expect sales volumes and orders placed with suppliers to grow, though at a fairly subdued pace.

Beyond the headline retail sales figures, growth in online retail sales slowed sharply in the year to March, with sales rising at the weakest pace since the start of this series in 2009. Internet sales are also expected to pick up slightly in the year to April, but growth is expected to remain far below average.

Wholesalers and motor traders also seemed to have felt the chill from the poor weather, with both sectors reporting noticeable slowdowns in sales growth in the year to March.

Record internet traffic, but sharp slowdown in online shopping

CBI Principal Economist Ben Jones commented: “Against a backdrop of stagnating household incomes and weak consumer confidence, the lengthy cold snap earlier this month has heaped added pressure on retailers.

“Freezing conditions and transport disruption caused people to avoid the High Street. With many forced to work from home, telecoms firms saw record internet traffic, yet online shopping slowed sharply, given the potential for disrupted deliveries.

“As winter finally loses its grip, retailers expect a recovery in sales growth in April, albeit a fairly tepid one. While the latest wage and price data point to the first green shoots of a recovery in real household incomes, any gains are likely to be modest, with conditions for retailers likely to remain challenging for some time yet.”

Looking to the rest of 2018, the CBI expects the recent squeeze on household incomes to ease in the months ahead. However, with real earnings growth likely to remain tepid relative to pre-crisis norms, retailers and other consumer-facing companies will continue to operate in a difficult environment.

Across the economy more broadly, the CBI expects growth to remain subdued over the coming quarters, in line with 2017 performance. For more detail, see the CBI’s December economic forecast.

Key findings from the survey


  • 32% of retailers said that sales volumes were up in the year to March, while 40% said they were down, giving a balance of -8%.
  • 32% of respondents expect retail sales volumes growth to increase in the year to April and 16% expect a decrease, giving a balance of +16%.
  • 37% of retailers placed more orders with suppliers than they did a year ago, while 31% placed fewer, giving a balance of +6%.
  • 8% of retailers said the volume of sales was good for the time of year and 35% said they were poor, giving a balance of -27% (the lowest survey balance since April 2013). Retailers expect sales to be more typical for the time of year in the year to April (-1%).
  • Sales volumes growth declined across non-specialised stores (-94%), furniture and carpets (-40%), clothing (-15%), and other normal goods (-15%). Meanwhile, sales volumes expanded in grocers (+22%), footwear and leather (+28%), and hardware and DIY (+33%).
  • Growth in internet sales volumes slowed sharply in the year to March (+11%, from +45% in February), indicating the slowest pace of growth since this series began in 2009. Online sales are expected to pick up somewhat in the year to April (+21%).


  • 39% of wholesalers reported sales volumes to be up on last year and 29% said they were down, giving a balance of +11% in the year to March (compared with +38% in the year to February). Volumes growth is expected to accelerate in the year to April (+30%).

Motor traders:

  • 58% of motor traders reported that sales volumes were up on a year ago, while 31% said they were down, giving a balance of +27%. Growth is expected to stay broadly unchanged in the year to April (+27%).

Was your business attacked by the Beast from the East? For advice on recovering from this and other economic setbacks, email me or call me on 020 7099 2621.

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