Fashion clearance sales boost January UK retail, but consumers stay cautious
January sales reports on Tuesday were far from buoyant, although the fashion sector continued to see growth, presumably boosted by easy comparisons, high inflation and clearance sales.
The monthly reports from Barclays and the British Retail Consortium-KPMG painted a picture of consumers still prepared to spend and to threat themselves but not exactly being in the mood to splurge.
The Barclays report looks at consumer card spending as a whole. And while the total spend figure was up 9.7% (which was higher than December’s 4.4% and slightly above the 9.2% inflation rate), it was artificially boosted by the unusually weak January 2022 comparison that had been due to restrictions linked to the surging Omicron variant back then.
And the new figures were also inflated by spending on utilities that grew 44.7% – the highest rate of growth since Barclays began tracking this data in April 2022.
Barclays said spending on non-essential items grew 10.4% with retail seeing its share of the rise, although hospitality and travel saw noticeable growth too (again, boosted by the comparison with the Omicron-hit January a year ago).
Consumers travelling more and socialising would have boosted fashion and beauty, of course, but overall spend growth by value at clothing stores was only 3.6%, while department stores rose 8.3%. Pharmacy, health & beauty retailers performed well, seeing their largest increase since April 2022 (10.2%). The Plan B restrictions in 2022 had dampened demand for clothing, make-up and accessories so the 2023 figures do at least show consumers getting back to normal.
Meanwhile, the BRC-KPMG figures showed that with “inflation running at historically record levels, the rise in sales masked a much larger drop in volumes once inflation is accounted for”.
Looking specifically at retail sales rather than consumer spending, the report said UK total retail sales rose 4.2% in January, below the three-month average growth of 5.2%. Like-for-like retail sales rose 3.9%.
Total non-food sales rose a lower 2.9% and online non-food sales actually fell 3.6%. The proportion of non-food items bought online (the penetration rate) decreased to 41.8% in January from 44.6% in January 2022.
Within the non-food category, footwear was particularly strong and clothing also rose, as did health & beauty. But while footwear also rose online, e-sales of clothing and health & beauty both fell.
Paul Martin, UK Head of Retail at KPMG, said “consumers have started the year with a tight rein on spending as they face another period of rising costs”.
He added that sales of clothing “continued to prop up the high street, with men’s clothes and shoes the strongest category in January”.
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