January retail sales boost - but is it a false dawn?

Last month saw the biggest jump in like-for-like retail sales since March. But let's not get too excited.

by James Taylor
Last Updated: 19 Aug 2013
On the face of it, today's news from the British Retail Consortium was good: a 2.3% rise in year-on-year like-for-like sales in January, the biggest jump in nine months. Another sign that the UK economy is bouncing back after December's snow woes? Well, not necessarily. The BRC reckons the figure was boosted by lots of shoppers buying non-food items at the start of the month before the VAT hike kicked in - after which sales tailed off again. And the month we're comparing against - January 2010 - was also heavily affected by bad weather. Not a good reason to hike interest rates, then...

It does look as though there was some pent-up demand in the economy after all the disruption in December, as you'd expect; the great British shopper needs their festive retail fix, after all. But the imminent VAT hike clearly affected behaviour, too: according to the BRC, there was a big spike at the start of the month, particularly for non-food items, but sales then slowed as 'the reality of worries about jobs and personal finances returned to customers' minds'. In other words, we remembered that now probably wasn't a great time to be splashing out on that new top - even if we really, really needed it.

What's more, that 2.3% figure looks a lot less impressive when you recall that last January was a bit of a write-off for the high street, as it endured the same sort of bad weather we saw before Christmas (last January's sales were 0.7% down on the previous year). The weather pattern also presumably helps to explain a slowdown in internet sales growth - which was 12.3% last month, compared to 18% in December. This time last year, people were a lot more likely to be shopping from the relative comfort of their own front rooms, out of the snow.

Today's headline figure might seem like another sign of economic progress, after positive news from the manufacturing and construction sectors lately. And it might seem like another reason for the Bank of England to think about hiking interest rates on Thursday, as it grapples with soaring inflation. (The markets are already starting to price in the impact of a rate hike, although the smart money seems to be on a May rise, to coincide with the next issue of the Bank's quarterly inflation report).

But dig a little deeper and these figures paint a predictable picture: shoppers getting in a few big purchases before the VAT hike, and then battening down the hatches again in preparation for a tough 2011. So a rate hike now would be brave indeed. We can't see many retailers favouring the idea, certainly.
Economy Retail

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