There were times in March when it looked as though winter might continue for many more months. Snow and Arctic winds were surely enough to keep people in their homes by the fire. And, unfortunately, the Office for National Statistics has corroborated this picture with the news that retail sales for the month were 0.7% lower than in February, and 0.5% lower than 2012.
In a statement the ONS said: ‘Feedback from department stores, clothing stores and household goods stores suggested that sales were dampened by the weather, as they prepared their stores for the spring season.’ It’s worth noting that according to data from the British Retail Consortium earlier this week, the out-of-town retailers were hit less badly, with footfall down by 4.2%. Larger shopping centres – which are often entirely indoors – were down just 2.4%.
In fact, another thing worth pointing out is that there is some disagreement in the data here: the BRC’s figures showed that overall retail sales were up 1.9% in March compared with the previous year. It doesn’t take a nuclear physicist to work out that one is really bad news, and the other is actually OK. There’s a 2.4% discrepancy here and it’s impossible to know which statistician is right. It’s probably fair to say that the ONS’ 0.5% figure could be accounted for by the margin of error in actually collating data such as retail sales volumes.
Perhaps it is, on this occasion, better to be microcosmic. Clothing chain Debenhams today announced that profits for the six months to March 2nd were down 5.4% to £120.3m, a drop which it blames squarely on the bad weather. Luckily, the firm’s like-for-like sales actually increased by 3.1% thanks to a boost from its growing online operation, but shrinking profits are shrinking profits.
Chief executive Michael Sharp said: ‘We made progress during the first half although snow in late January meant we did not achieve the profit outcome we had expected. We expect to make further progress in the second half, despite consumer sentiment remaining weak and challenging market conditions.’ Things are potentially looking up for Debenhams though: its online sales were up 46% on the previous half, and it has refurbed nine UK stores, with plans to do up another 12 by this time next year.
With the sun starting to show some willingness at long last, however, let’s hope the high street has a considerably more solid summer. Although knowing retailers as we do, the will probably still find something to complain about in the weather.