Retail sales rise in the run-up to Christmas

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Retail sales rose in the year to December, building further on November’s solid performance, according to the latest monthly CBI Distributive Trades Survey.

The survey of 109 firms, of which 56 were retailers, showed that in the year to December, retail sales and orders continued to rise, although both disappointed expectations of somewhat stronger growth.

Overall, sales for the time of year were considered to be in line with seasonal norms. Growth in online sales remained reasonably firm in the year to December, at a pace just below the long-run average (indicating that the internet sales of Black Friday and Cyber Monday were unspectacular), and is expected to slow further in the year to January.

Looking ahead to the next month, retailers expect similar growth in both sales volumes and orders.

Grocers were the main driver of retail sales growth in December, but other sectors also performed well: notably, non-store retailers (e.g. mail order), hardware & DIY and “other” sales (e.g. flowers and jewellery).  But specialist food & drink and footwear & leather saw sales fall on a year ago.

Elsewhere, motor traders also saw a rise in sales volumes, but much slower growth is expected in the year to January. Growth in sales volumes for wholesalers slowed in line with expectations in the year to December, with a similar rate of growth expected in the year to January.

Alpesh Paleja, CBI Principal Economist, said:

“Retailers have seen decent growth heading into the vital Christmas trading period, although it was weaker than expected. It’s clear that people are stocking up on food for their Christmas lunch, with grocers’ sales driving most of the sales growth seen in December.

“Notwithstanding the sales growth seen in the last couple of months, underlying trading conditions are tough for retailers. We expect the squeeze on real pay for households to last a while longer, so retailers will still face challenging conditions ahead. The Government’s Industrial Strategy is a good start for boosting productivity and living standards, but consistency and determination is needed to make it a long-lasting success.”

Key findings

Retailers:

  • 37% of retailers said that sales volumes were up in December on a year ago, whilst 17% said they were down, giving a balance of +20%. Growth was slower than expected (+30%), and slightly slower than in November (+26%)
  • 27% of respondents expect sales volumes to increase next month, with 10% expecting a decrease, giving a balance of +17%
  • 31% of retailers placed more orders with suppliers than they did a year ago, whilst 20% placed fewer orders, giving a balance of +11%. This was below expectations (+22%)
  • 8% of retailers reported that their volume of sales for the time of year were good, whilst 11% said they were poor, giving a balance of -3%
  • Internet sales volumes continued to expand at a healthy pace (+41) albeit slower than in the year to November (+46%). Internet sales volumes growth is expected to ease noticeably in the year to January (+21 – the lowest since October 2009)
  • Sales volumes expanded in hardware & DIY (+70%), grocers (+48%) and the non-store sector (+42%). Meanwhile, sales volumes decreased in specialist food & drink (-21%), footwear & leather (-62%) and furniture & carpets (-67%).

Wholesalers:

  • 50% of wholesalers reported sales volumes to be up on last year, and 21% said they were down, giving a balance of +29%. Volumes are expected to grow at a broadly similar pace next month (+31%)
  • Growth in the volume of orders placed upon suppliers slowed slightly (+19%, from +23% in November), with broadly similar growth expected in the year to January (+15%).

Motor traders:

  • 46% of motor traders reported sales volumes were up on a year ago, whilst 23% said they were down, giving a balance of +23%. This was significantly above expectations (+10%). Only a slight rise in sales is expected next month (+6%).