CBI: retail sales steady in March but disappointing for time of year

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Sales on the high street were stable in the year to March 2012, although retailers reported they were again disappointing for the time of year, the CBI said today (Tuesday).

In the CBI’s latest monthly Distributive Trades Survey, covering the first two weeks in March 2012, 33% of retailers saw sales volumes up on a year ago, and the same figure reported a fall.

While year-on-year sales volumes did not see any significant improvement on last month, the resulting balance of zero suggests sales on the high street may be stabilising, said researchers.

However, firms reported sales were still low for the time of year (-27%), and said over the next month they expect both volume of sales (-4%) and the volume of orders on suppliers (-12%) to remain subdued. Relative to demand, stock levels rose sharply last month (+22%), but are expected to be run down slightly next month, said the CBI.

Some retail sub-sectors reported an improvement in their volume of sales, with others continuing to perform strongly. Furniture and carpets saw an improvement for the second consecutive month (+58%), while a balance of +33% of grocers saw an increase in sales continuing the trend of healthier figures since December last year.

Judith McKenna, chair of the CBI Distributive Trades Panel and Asda chief operating officer, said: “It is encouraging sales on our high streets are stabilising and, while we are still not seeing growth, conditions have improved since the end of last year.

“However, the general retail outlook remains tough and firms expect volumes of sales and orders to fall next month. The squeeze on people’s pockets continues to bite, despite a recent fall in inflation, with wage growth modest and fuel costs remaining high.”

Motor traders saw their first increase in sales (+10%) since December 2010 and expectations were that this will continue in the next month (+10%).

Among wholesalers, 58% reported a rise in volume of sales, while 24% saw a fall. The resulting balance of +34% represents a fourth consecutive month of sales increases, significantly exceeding their expectations of +11%, said the CBI.