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Non-food retail sales stumble in March

Consumer spending on the high street lagged in March after freezing weather conditions kept shoppers at home, the latest figures from the BRC-KPMG sales monitor have confirmed.

In the three months to 31 March, non-food retail sales in the UK declined by 1.8% on a like-for-like basis and by 1% on a total basis. This is below a flat 12-month total average of 0%.

In-store sales of non-food items fell by 4% on a like-for-like basis during the same three-month period, dropping by 3% on a total basis. On a 12-month basis, the total decline was 2.2%.

However, online sales of non-food items continued to outperform their retail counterparts, as shoppers retreated indoors to purchase goods during March’s snowy weather conditions.

Online non-food sales grew 7.9% in the five weeks to 31 March, compared with a 6.6% rise in the same period in 2017.

This ranked above three-month and 12-month averages of 6.6% and 7.8% respectively. Online penetration rate increased to 22% in March 2018, from 20.6% in March 2017.

UK retail sales across food and non-food edged up by 1.4% on a like-for-like basis in the five-week period, compared with a 1% dip in the preceding year.

On a total basis, sales in both food and non-food categories rose 2.3% in March 2018 against a decline of 0.2% in March 2017.

This was above a 1.8% three-month average and 1.9% 12-month average, but the research noted the figures were positively distorted by the timing of Easter this year.

Helen Dickinson, chief executive at the BRC, said that food sales spiked given the Easter celebrations, but non-food sales “bore the brunt of consumers’ disinterest in typical Springtime purchases, as well as the ongoing spending squeeze on non-essentials”, despite “some [promotional] activity”.

She added: “There is hope that, with the gap between inflation and wage growth finally narrowing, consumers’ purse strings will slacken to some extent. But the grip on spending power will persist over the course of the year.”

Paul Martin, head of retail at KPMG, noted that online clothing and beauty offerings gained the most demand from customers during the inclement weather.

He said: “March was difficult for large parts of the UK retail industry. Seemingly endless cold weather dissuaded would-be shoppers from the high street and a number of retailers delivered bad news.

“Great hopes were placed on Easter trading, but whilst the latest figures point to overall improvement when compared to recent months, the Easter boost didn’t quite measure up to previous years.

“Retailers with an online presence were far more fortunate, with a marked lift in all categories. The cold weather clearly persuaded shoppers to peruse from the comfort of their own homes, with beauty and clothing grabbing the most attention.”

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