Retail sales volumes fell unexpectedly in the year to January, CBI reports


Retail sales volumes fell unexpectedly in the year to January, following robust increases over the final quarter of 2016, according to the CBI’s latest monthly Distributive Trades Survey.

The survey of 113 firms, consisting of 52 retailers, showed that sales fell modestly at the start of this year. Looking ahead, volumes are set to grow in the year to February.

Sales volumes were considered to be broadly in line with the average for the time of year, having been above seasonal norms at the end of 2016. Orders placed on suppliers were broadly unchanged over the year, and are expected to fall marginally next month.

The moderate decline in retail sales volumes was driven by grocers, where sales fell at the fastest pace since August 2004. However, continually healthy growth was reported elsewhere, particularly among clothing retailers and department stores.

Growth in internet sales volumes slowed slightly in the year to January, although the survey balance remained above the long-run average.  Wholesaling reported the strongest volumes growth since September 2007, with anecdote pointing to purchases brought forward ahead of future price rises as well as generally resilient demand. Motor trades also reported a solid rise once again in the year to January.

Anna Leach, CBI head of surveys and economic analysis, said: “Grocers have reported a disappointing start to the year, but other sectors appear to have performed better. This month’s decline was mostly driven by falling food sales and seems set to be short-lived, with retailers expecting sales to return next month.

“Headwinds are on the horizon, as past falls in sterling are expected to push up inflation over the course of this year, which will be a real squeeze on household incomes. Retailers will be under the cosh for some time yet.”


Key findings:

  • 23% of retailers said that sales volumes were up, whilst 32% said they were down, giving a balance of -8%
  • 12% of retailers said the volume of sales was above average for the time of year, with 10% saying they were below average, giving a balance of +2%
  • 24% of retailers placed more orders with suppliers than they did a year ago, and 21% placed fewer, giving a balance of +3%
  • 18% of retailers expect the volume of orders to increase in the year to February, with 21% expecting them to decrease, giving a rounded balance of -4%
  • Sales volumes fell among grocers (-65%). Sales volumes were flat in a number of sectors, including specialist food & drink, footwear & leather and furniture & carpets. But strong growth was reported in clothing (+53%) and department stores (+52%)
  • Growth in internet sales volumes slowed in the year to January (+57% from +66%), but remained well above the long-run average (+48%). Growth is set to accelerate in the year to February (+66%).


  • 68% of wholesalers reported sales volumes to be up on last year and 7% said they were down, giving a rounded balance of +60%. This is the highest survey balance since September 2007.

Motor trades:

  • 48% of motor traders reported that sales volumes were up on a year ago, while 9% said they were down, giving a balance of +39%.  Sales volumes are expected to increase at the same pace in the year to February (+39%).