May 26, 2021
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Fashion sales fall short in May despite retail's return to normal, online still up - CBI

May 26, 2021

It looks like overall retail sales returned to some sort of normality in May, according to the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) and its latest Distributive Trades Survey. But wait, sales were actually “below normal in clothing", the report noted, as there were “wide disparities within the retail sector” when it came to overall performance.

Photo: Nigel Taylor

The survey of 114 firms, including 45 retailers, also showed average selling prices in May grew at their fastest rate since November 2019 (+53% from +28%), and are expected to grow at a similar pace next month.

It also showed stock levels in relation to expected sales were seen as “too low, and to the greatest extent since the start of the [survey] in 1983”. 

And sentiment across retail remained “fairly subdued, with retailers expecting their overall business situation to remain broadly stable over the next three months”.

The CBI said retail sales were “broadly average for the time of year in May”, with a balance of -3% from +16% in April, according to its survey conducted between 28 April and 17 May, when all retailers were back in business.

And expect more of the same for June, when sales are “expecting to remain close to seasonal norms (+3%)”.

But it noted there were wide sales disparities in May within the retail sector. While grocers, non-store retailers, hardware & DIY, and furniture & carpets retailers reported that sales were “significantly” above seasonal norms, sales were “below normal” in clothing and specialist food.

On a brighter note, the report showed the easing of lockdown has seen retailers look to invest in their businesses once again, with investment intentions for the coming 12 months "rising at the fastest pace since February 1994”.

But at the same time, employment also continued to fall sharply in the year to May (-37% from -44%) and is expected to continue to do so next month (-37%), "a four-year trend of declining headcount having accelerated over the past year".

Ben Jones, principal Economist at the CBI, said: “The fact that sales were in line with seasonal norms is a definite improvement from earlier in the year, but this month’s survey was perhaps a touch disappointing after April’s stronger results.

“Some retailers have suggested the increase in demand after the initial reopening of non-essential retail in early April was either short-lived or less strong than expected. And non-store sales remain well above seasonal norms, suggesting that some consumers who migrated to online shopping during the pandemic have not fully shifted back to old habits”.

He added: “As the economy moves toward a new normal, it’s clear that the pandemic has exacerbated pre-existing challenges for some retailers. The trend away from bricks-and-mortar retail has accelerated, while rent arrears and accrued debts have added to the cumulative burden of costs. The lockdown may be over, but its impact on the sector will be felt for a good while yet”.

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