Early Christmas shopping lifts UK retail sales

·3 min read
Early Christmas shopping lifts UK retail sales
Retail sales volumes rose by 1.4% in November 2021. Photo: Henry Nicholls/Reuters

Retail sales volume rose in November and was higher than pre-pandemic levels, boosted by strong Black Friday and pre-Christmas trading, ONS data revealed.

Retail sales volumes rose by 1.4% in November 2021 and were 7.2% higher than February 2020 levels, right before the pandemic hit.

“It is clear that plenty of customers used the Black Friday sales as an opportunity to snap up bargains ahead of Christmas,” said Helen Dickinson, CEO of the British Retail Consortium.

“This sales event, once limited to the last week in November, has now become a month-long discounting event,” she said, adding that while traditional sales in TVs and other electronics could be found, there has been a clear expansion in clothing and footwear Black Friday discounts, boosting sales growth in these areas.

“This was bolstered by the cold weather during November, which led many to prepare their wardrobe for the winter.”

Non-food store sales volumes rose by 2%, because of growth in clothing stores (2.9%) and other non-food stores (2.8%) such as computer stores, toy stores and jewellery stores.

Retailers said they saw strong trading related to Black Friday and in the lead up to Christmas.

Clothing stores sales volumes were above pre-coronavirus levels for the first time — 3.2% above levels seen in February 2020. Computer, toy and jewellery retailers also reported robust sales.

Read more: Revealed: UK's strongest sellers market for 2021

Fuel sales volumes rose by 3.7% following some disruption to supplies in the previous two months. Volumes were 1.9% below their February 2020 levels.

Food store sales volumes fell by 0.2% in November 2021 but were still 3.2% above levels in February last year.

“With more consumers choosing to visit the high street and retail parks, the proportion of online sales continued on a downward trend, to their lowest level since March 2020.”

The proportion of retail sales online fell to 26.9% in November 2021, its lowest proportion since March 2020 (22.6%) and a continuation of a falling trend since its peak in February 2021 (36.8%).

“Retailers focus is now squarely in the final preparations for Christmas,” said Dickinson.

“There has already been a gargantuan effort to ensure that essential food and gifts are ready for the festive season, despite ongoing challenges in the supply chain. We remain confident it will be a great Christmas for consumers, and retailers are pulling out the stops to keep staff and customers as safe as possible during these difficult times.”

Meanwhile Paul Martin, UK head of retail at KPMG, said “December could paint different picture for the sector, due to COVID restrictions and concern over rising infection numbers."

He said retailers will be hoping the roll out of the vaccine booster programme continues to bolster consumer confidence, against a backdrop of rising interest rates and inflation, which could see the party come to an end and consumers pull back spending as they look to weather the storm and rising household costs.”

Recent data shows GfK’s Consumer Confidence Index decreased one point to -15 in December. 

Measures that look at how people see the coming year have slipped – down one point for personal finances over the next 12 months and down one point for the wider economy during 2022. 

"This is driven by concerns over the soaring cost of living with the prospect of looming interest rate rises piling on more pressure," said Joe Staton, client strategy director, GfK.

He said "dispirited Brits say they are less inclined to make major purchases during the countdown to Christmas," adding that: "We end 2021 on a depressing note and it looks like it will be a bleak midwinter for UK consumer confidence possibly with new COVID curbs and little likelihood of any real uplift in the first months of 2022.”

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