Oct 12, 2021
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UK retail sales growth weakened in September

Oct 12, 2021

UK consumer spending looked weak in some respects last month although there was something of a contradictory situation. The regular monthly Barclaycard report said spending on payment cards rose 13.3% compared to September two years ago as Britons enjoyed what was almost the last of the summer sun.

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But the British Retail Consortium-KPMG report talked of a stalling recovery as retail sales were at their weakest since January.

The difference between the two reports is that Barclaycard covers consumer spending in general so takes in trips to restaurants or the cinema as well as money spent in stores. And even with the relatively buoyant spending it reported, it also said that consumer confidence remains fragile due to ongoing supply chain issues.

The BRC-KPMG retail sales monitor said total sales rose 0.6% year-on-year, down from average growth of 3.1% in the past three months. And like-for-like sales were actually down 0.6%. 

That said, non-food retailers saw a 3.8% rise year-on-year but big shopping trips were curtailed later in the month as fuel shortages impacted consumers.

Meanwhile, the Barclaycard monthly report also said that in September, consumers had a big focus on essential items such as food and fuel. Essentials rose 13.3% while non-essential items had a smaller uplift than in August. And even here, a lot of the non-essentials spending focus was on pubs, bars and clubs (that saw significant boosts as office workers reunited at post-work gatherings), and on other entertainment spending channels. But at least clothing sales managed to rise 10.1%.

Barclaycard processes nearly half of the UK’s credit and debit card transactions and said that spending on non-essential items grew 12.9%, which wasn’t bad, eve if it was less than August’s 15.8% rise. The company did say, however that “given rising inflation, [it] may indicate that some consumers are starting to cut back on discretionary purchases”.

In fact, the number of Britons who felt confident in their ability to buy non-essential items fell four percentage points in September (down to 59%, compared to 63% in August). It was the lowest this figure has been since February 2021, during the third national lockdown.

So it’s no surprise that some shoppers are already seeking out value in the purchases they make, as discount stores saw a 29.3% uplift compared to 2019. A further 56% of Britons suggest that if energy prices rise sharply, it will make it harder for them to spend money on “nice-to-have” items.

But for now, spending remains fairly robust and the fashion and beauty sector seem to have been benefiting from lockdown savings, pent-up demand and the need for new purchases for all the work and social events consumers now have.

Barclaycard said that sales through department stores and pharmacy, health & beauty retailers rose 3.6% and 17.5% respectively last month – the sharpest increases for both categories since May 2021. As mentioned, clothing spend was up 10.1%, although transaction numbers fell 1.9%.

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