Easter eggs on shoppers to splash the cash

Retail sales jumped more than 5% in April - a much-needed boost for the high street. But we're by no means out of the woods yet, sadly...

by James Taylor
Last Updated: 19 Aug 2013
Some positive news from the high street, for what seems like the first time in ages: like-for-like sales were 5.2% up on the same month last year, as retailers cashed in on the hot weather, two bank holiday weekends and a Royal Wedding. That's a very healthy-sounding number, but it might be unwise to get too excited. For a start, this is partly just about clawing back the sharp 3.2% decline in March. It's also possible that the unseasonal sunshine just encouraged shoppers to bring purchases forward - so we're effectively borrowing growth from later in the year. And it has to be said: if retailers couldn't manage a good month in April, with so many factors in their favour, there really would be no hope for them...

Looking at the list of April's biggest sellers, the impact of the sunshine is clear: it includes champagne, garden furniture, barbecue food, and warm weather clothing. The effect of such exceptionally good weather (this April was the sunniest on record) can't be overstated; not only does it get people out of the house, but it also improves the general mood. And with the royal nuptials adding to that feelgood factor, it's not surprising that shoppers were more inclined to spend than they have been lately. (It also led to a boost in house viewings, according to the Royal Insititute of Chartered Surveyors - although it didn't persuade the banks to offer more generous mortgage terms to would-be buyers, sadly).

Of course, growth like this is always a good thing - especially after March's miserable figure. But the British Retail Consortium isn't convinced that a corner has been turned: the numbers are 'a relief...but not the full picture,' according to D-G Stephen Robertson. Some analysts reckon that the April and March numbers basically just cancel each other out, and Robertson himself was quick to point out that the 'underlying pressures' on the sector - i.e. higher input costs and lower consumer spending - 'will be problems for many months to come'.

That's not very in keeping with the summery tone of today's results. But he may have a point. Arguably you get a better sense of current demand by looking at those retailers who won't have benefited from that triple whammy of unseasonal sunshine/ double bank holiday/ royal wedding, like electrical stores - and there the picture was very different, with sales still very sluggish. Even this boost in (for example) clothing sales may be illusory - Next boss Lord Wolfson recently suggested shoppers have just been buying stuff they'd ordinarily buy later in the year, so it won't actually boost sales over the year as a whole.

Still, let's try and focus on the positives - in the light of recent economic data, this could have been an awful lot worse...

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