Britain’s retailers suffered the sharpest drop in business in more than two decades last month as bad weather, the squeeze on household budgets and the timing of Easter led to a hefty cut in consumer spending.
In the latest evidence of the slowdown in the economy since the turn of the year, the latest health check from the British Retail Consortium (BRC) and KPMG found that sales were down by 3.1% in April, the biggest decline since the survey was launched in 1995.
Spending on non-food items has been particularly hard hit over the last three months, and retailers are braced for tough trading conditions to continue for the rest of the year even though wages have now started to rise more quickly than prices.
Retailers have been hit hard by a combination of problems on top of the squeeze on spending, including higher labour costs as a result of increases in the minimum wage, the shift to online shopping and rapidly changing spending patterns.
Toys R Us and the electricals retailer Maplin collapsed in February and a number of retailers, including House of Fraser, New Look, Carpetright and Poundworld, are all pursuing agreements with their landlords to cut their rents and close stores.
The industry had been expecting that year-on-year comparisons would look poor for April, but the BRC’s chief executive, Helen Dickinson, said the problem ran deeper.
“With much of the spending in preparation for the bank holiday weekend falling in March this year, a record low in sales growth, in contrast to last year’s record high, does not come as a surprise. However, even once we take account of these seasonal distortions, the underlying trend in sales growth is heading downwards.
“The first glimpse of summer may have temporarily lifted clothing and footwear, but non-food sales overall continue to be weak. Consumers’ discretionary spending power remains under pressure and the reality is, that with only a gradual return to solid growth in real incomes expected, the market environment is likely to remain extremely challenging for most retailers.”