UK high street sales continue to stall, latest CBI Distributive Trades Survey reports

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Retailers saw sales volumes remain flat in April, defying expectations of growth, according to the CBI’s latest monthly Distributive Trades Survey.

The survey, which had 62 respondents from the retail sector, saw little support to sales growth from the Easter trading period: sales volumes were broadly unchanged in the year to April, the lowest balance since August 2012, continuing a steadily weakening trend in sales growth since November.

Sales volumes were well below average for the time of year, to a much greater extent than expected.

The volume of orders also fell on a year ago, once again disappointing expectations of growth, while stock levels remained above their long-run average relative to expected demand.

Expectations for next month have dampened, with retailers expecting both sales volumes and orders to fall.

Barry Williams, Asda chief merchandising officer for food, and chair of the CBI Distributive Trades Survey Panel, said: “Retailers were frustrated this month by the on-going stagnation in sales growth. This may be explained in part by the unseasonal weather we suffered, but there is no doubt high street conditions are tricky with consumers lacking the confidence to go out and spend, as they still feel the pinch in their pocket.”

The survey was conducted between 26 March and 10 April 2013.

Key findings:

  • 36% of firms reported sales volumes were up on a year earlier, and 37% said they were down, giving a balance of -1%. This was the lowest balance since August 2012 (-3%) and much lower than expectations of sales growth (+15%)
  • 18% reported sales volumes to be above average for the time of year, and 45% below. The resulting balance of -27% was much weaker than expected  (-1%)
  • 27% placed more orders with suppliers than they did a year ago, and 40% fewer, resulting in a rounded balance of -12%, against more positive expectations (+7%)
  • Clothing (-28%) and footwear and leather (-61%) were among the sectors that saw a fall in sales. These were partly offset by rising sales in other sectors such as grocers (+20%), furniture & carpets (+77%) and non-store retailers (+67%). For grocers, this was the first year-on-year rise in sales in three months
  • Sales volumes are expected to see a small fall in the year to May, with 27% of firms expecting an increase versus 33% predicting a fall, resulting in a balance of -6%. Volume of orders placed upon suppliers are also expected to fall, with 21% of retailers expecting order volumes to be up on a year ago and 36% down, giving a balance of -15%

The survey also heard from 46 wholesalers and seven motor traders.

Wholesalers:

9% of wholesalers reported sales volumes were up on a year earlier, and 35% said they were down, giving a balance of -26%. This significant fall was very much against expectations of growth (+17%), although they expect sales to fall at a slower pace in the year to May (-7%).

Motor traders:

60% of motor traders reported sales volumes to be up on a year earlier, and 0% said they were down – the balance of +60% is the highest since April 2002 (+74%). This encouraging figure greatly exceeded expectations (0%), and it is anticipated that strong sales growth will continue in the year to May (+53%).