Showers drown UK retail sales - which stores suffered?
by Chris Haycock | Wednesday, May 29, 2024 | Comments

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April was a "washout" for UK retailers, with heavy rain keeping shoppers away and causing a significant drop in sales. According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), retail sales volumes fell by 2.3% in April, following a smaller decline of 0.2% in March.

This slump was worse than economists had predicted, as the inclement weather dampened consumer enthusiasm for shopping trips.

Clothing, sports equipment, and furniture stores were particularly hit hard, with non-food shops seeing a collective sales drop of 4.1%, the steepest since January 2021. Fashion stores were also affected badly, and  experienced a 5.1% fall in sales as shoppers shunned the high street, thanks to the persistent rain that we've had to cope with in April (and perhaps now May too?).

Interestingly, department stores and online retailers did somewhat better, managing to buck this downward trend. The poor weather pushed many shoppers to switch to the sheer convenience of online shopping, resulting in a slight uptick in sales for these sectors. Despite this, the overall picture for April was pretty bleak, with the retail sector struggling to recover from the double whammy of wet weather, and ongoing economic pressures.

Experts like Rob Wood, chief UK economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics, noted that the persistent bad weather (rainfall was significantly above average) was a key factor in the sales decline. However, he remains optimistic that as weather patterns normalise, and with wage growth and easing inflation, consumer spending might see a rebound in the coming months.

Retail experts are advising stores to focus on value-driven strategies and to adapt their product ranges to attract budget-conscious consumers. In other words, drop their prices. As Deloitte's head of retail, Oliver Vernon-Harcourt, pointed out, despite rising consumer confidence, many shoppers are still cautious about heading to the high street and splashing the cash, particularly when it comes to non-essential items, such as clothing and footwear.

"April's retail slump highlights the industry's vulnerability to external factors - even something as simple as the rain! Retailers must adapt quickly, focusing on online strategies and offer more value, to counteract economic and environmental challenges."

- Chris Haycock

April's disappointing retail sales figures highlight the ongoing challenges faced by high streets up and down the country, from unpredictable weather to economic uncertainties. While some sectors managed to hold firm, the overall outlook suggests that retailers will need to remain agile, quick to pivot, and customer-focused to navigate the turbulent times. 

The sales slump highlights the significant impact that external factors such as weather and economic conditions can have on consumer behaviour. While to the layman a 2.3% drop doesn't sound like much, it's significant enough to hit the front pages.

A 2.3% drop in sales volumes, exacerbated by unusually heavy rainfall, demonstrates how sensitive the retail sector is to environmental conditions. Let's face it, none of us like shopping in a downpour.

From my perspective, the situation underscores a few critical points for the high street retail sector:

Consumer Sensitivity to Weather

The fact that poor weather can deter shoppers so markedly indicates that many retail businesses, particularly those selling non-essential items like clothing and sports equipment, are highly vulnerable to external conditions.

There's  a need for retailers to develop more robust contingency plans than they may already have done so far, perhaps by enhancing their online presence to capture sales when physical foot traffic decreases. Or perhaps a marketing promotion to entice people to come in out of the rain with the offer of a discount. 

Economic Uncertainty

Ongoing economic pressures, including factors that affect us all, including inflation and rising interest rates, are clearly making consumers cautious about what they're spending, and where.

Research from experts including Rob Wood and Oliver Vernon-Harcourt, suggest that while there might be a silver lining with potential wage growth and falling inflation, the overall sentiment remains one of caution.

Let's hope that the weather improves in time for the start of summer!

Strategic Adaptation Needed

Retailers need to focus on value-driven strategies to attract budget-conscious consumers. This means offering more own-label products and competitive pricing to retain and attract customers during tough times. From a marketing perspective (I've been in marketing for decades) sales are won through two primary factors: the brand and the offer. Get those two working in synergy and retailers stand a better chance of weathering the storm, 'scuse the pun.

Additionally, the resilience of online retailers during April's downturn shows the importance of a strong digital strategy

Cost Pressures

Of course, sometimes it's not as simple as just pivoting, or dropping prices. There's more to it than that.

Rising business rates, wage inflation, and supply chain issues are adding to the challenges faced by retailers. These costs can erode margins. And it can also be difficult for businesses to stay afloat unless they manage their expenses effectively and continue to innovate in their product offerings and customer service.

While the immediate outlook for UK retail may seem bleak thanks to April's atrocious weather and economic challenges, there are avenues for recovery. Retailers that can adapt by focusing on value, and enhance their online presence are likely to come off better in the months ahead. The hope is that with better weather (fingers crossed) and stabilising economic conditions, consumer confidence and spending will rebound.

Chris HaycockChris Haycock is the founder and CEO of Postcode Area.
He started his digital publishing business in 2004 with the launch of BritEvents, and since his journey began has built a significant portfolio of 30+ websites.
These websites include ZoomLocal, Visitr, Traffic Update, Who Shall I Vote For?, Postcode Area and more. ONE in SIX of the UK population has used his websites in 2017.

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