UK department stores weak in April despite fashion bounce-back says ONS

UK retail had a better time in April yet not everybody was happy as department stores proved to be the main sector that was struggling. At least the fashion sector overall had a better time of it than in the first few months of the year.


UK department stores suffered the most from slower footfall last month


The latest official figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) showed sales volumes rising 1.6% last month, which was so much better than the 1.1% fall in March. It was also much better than the 0.7% gain analysts had predicted, and was the largest rise for 18 months.

Fashion retail led the recovery, which was good news after a weak early spring season. That was far from a shock given the pent-up demand in the sector. Consumers had to start buying spring fashion at some point and they did so in April, even though many of them would have bought it at a discount and the month’s recovery was unlikely to had been enough to counteract the dips earlier in the season.

The ONS also warned that overall sales growth remains subdued “with the volume of goods sold over the last six months broadly unchanged”. It said retail sales growth has slowed considerably over a longer timescale.

But looking at the positives, while fashion enjoyed some level of bounce-back, online sales also continued their powerful run. Online sales as a proportion of all retailing continued to grow year-on-year at 17.3% in April 2018, in comparison with 16.1% in April 2017. Fashion was one of the sectors that was the strongest with textiles, clothing and footwear e-stores up more than 24%.

But what about that problem for department stores? They had been stronger in March as their online operations were apparently boosted by shoppers switching from physical stores to web stores during the bad weather. But in April this switch didn't seem to continue and department stores dropped 0.9%.

And that fact underlined the essential shifts that are happening in British retail, shifts that perhaps other countries will also face in the future as their shoppers become increasingly online-focused.

Andrew Westbrook, head of retail at accountancy firm RSM, said that “there is still a Darwinian struggle taking place on the UK high street.”

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