UK December retail figures show online shift, Brexit fears and Black Friday impact

What do we make of last month’s UK retail figures? After all the good and bad trading updates, and the many different unofficial sales stats, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) has finally released its official numbers for December.


UK shoppers walked away from stores last month, moving online but also conserving cash


And the news is… confusing. Sales were up by a fairly healthy amount year-on-year but by less than expected, and down month-on-month. And there are growing signs that a basket of factors are affecting consumer spending. They include the shift of spending into November due to Black Friday, plus looming inflation and fears over the future because of Brexit.

Let’s look at the headline numbers: UK retail sales slowed at their fastest monthly pace in almost five years with a 1.9% fall compared to November but a 4.3% rise compared to December 2015. The month-on-month fall was bigger than expected and the year-on-year rise was smaller than had been predicted.

The biggest contribution to the monthly decline came from non-food stores, which takes in department stores, clothing and household goods.

Rushing to explain the figures, analysts pointed to Brexit fears finally hitting home, a potential jobs market slowdown, and rising inflation. They also said that shoppers having relied on debt for their spending could also have made consumers suddenly cautious after all the publicity about Britons’ unsecured borrowing hitting a near 12-year high in November.

But none mentioned the Black Friday effect, which must surely had had an impact. A raft of surveys has showed shoppers shifting much of their festive pending into November due to Black Friday deals, and even shunning the late December/January sales in favour of November markdowns.

Boosting the view that Black Friday is having an impact was the fact that online sales grew last month by 21.3% but were still 5.3% lower than in November - significant given that Black Friday has become a largely-online event in the UK.

Interesting too is that fact that online sales accounted for 15% of the total in December with the shift to e-tail from physical stores continuing at a fast pace.

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