UK retail sales stand still in February

Retail sales volumes in the UK were once again flat in the year to February 2019. The subdued start to the year was confirmed by the latest quarterly Distributive Trades Survey by the Confederation of British Industry (CBI).

The survey of 100 firms, of which 47 were retailers, showed that retail sales volumes remained unchanged for the second successive month in February. However, the volume of sales was seen to be around the average for the time of year, for the first time since September, while orders placed on suppliers also rose moderately.

Within the retail sector, grocers continued to provide the biggest positive contribution to volumes growth, with support from clothing stores, non-store retailers and recreational goods stores. By contrast, sales volumes fell among retailers of footwear and leather, hardware and DIY goods, and furniture and carpets.

“Consumer confidence has been ebbing away”

Anna Leach, CBI Head of economic intelligence, commented: “The high street has seen a slow start to the year, with year-on-year sales volumes unchanged again this month. Although real earnings growth is higher, consumer confidence has been ebbing away, keeping a lid on demand.

“Retail investment plans have taken a hit this quarter, falling to their weakest since 2012. Until politicians can agree a deal that commands a majority in parliament, is acceptable to the EU and protects our economy, business despair will deepen. A deal must be negotiated, and no-deal averted.”

Looking ahead, retailers’ expectations regarding the business situation have stabilised for the first time in a year. Sales volumes are expected to pick up sharply in the year to March, with growth expectations at the highest since October 2015. Similarly, the volume of orders placed on suppliers is expected to rise briskly. Meanwhile growth in online sales, which remained around the long-run average in the year to February, is expected to slow slightly in the year to March.

Employment in decline

Conditions for retailers nonetheless remain challenging. Investment intentions for the year ahead deteriorated further, to their weakest since February 2012. Meanwhile, employment in the sector was reported to have fallen in the year to February – the ninth consecutive quarterly survey showing a decline – and at a quicker pace than reported in November. Employment is expected to continue falling in the year to March.

Elsewhere, wholesalers reported a slowdown in sales volumes growth in the year to February to around the long-run average, while orders placed upon suppliers fell at the fastest pace since July 2016. Motor traders saw a strong pick-up in sales growth, with sales for the time of year seen as their strongest since September 2016.

Key findings from the survey

Retailers

  • 30% of respondents reported that sales volumes were up on a year ago in February, while 30% said they were down, giving a balance of 0%.
  • Retailers expect sales volumes to pick up next month (+39%), with 55% expecting a rise and 16% expecting a fall.
  • Sales for the time of year improved in February, with a balance of +4%, up from -37% in January.
  • The volume of orders placed on suppliers grew in the year to February, with 31% of survey respondents reporting an increase and 25% reporting a fall, giving a balance of +7%. Orders are expected to improve further in March (+25%).
  • Retailers expect their overall business situation to be relatively stable over the next three months (+5%).
  • Investment intentions for retailers in the next 12 months compared with the last 12 months in February reached their lowest balance (-33%) since February 2012 (-43%).
  • Average selling prices grew at a slower pace in the year to February (+48%) compared with November (+58%), but at a pace above the long-run average (+39%).
  • Year-on-year growth in internet sales volumes grew at the same pace in February (+47%) as last month and in line with the long-run average. A slight slowdown in March is expected (+40%).
  • Retail sales growth was driven by grocers (+45%), with support from clothing (+7%), non-store (+43%) and recreational goods (+33%).
  • However, sales fell in other subsectors, including footwear and leather (-63%), furniture and carpets (-33%), hardware and DIY (-46%), specialist food and drink (-32%) and other normal goods (-36%).

Wholesalers

  • 34% of wholesalers reported sales volumes to be up on last year and 12% said they were down, giving a balance of +23%.

Motor traders

  • 30% of motor traders reported sales volumes to be up on last year and 0% said they were down, giving a balance of +30%.

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