British consumers sharply reined in spending over the Christmas period, as Black Friday deals encouraged them to purchase presents earlier, rounding off the weakest year for retail sales since 2013.
According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), spending fell back 1.5% in December after a strong November when the US-inspired discounting event appeared to boost sales. The drop was worse than expected among City economists and is likely to have dented profits for many British retailers over the key shopping month.
Rhian Murphy, senior statistician at the ONS, said there had been an increase in sales over the final three months of the year as a whole, but that December had been weaker as consumers pulled forward their shopping to take advantage of Black Friday deals, mirroring a trend seen in previous years.
“However, the longer-term picture is one of slowing growth, with increased prices squeezing people’s spending,” she added. In 2017 as a whole, the quantity of products bought in retail sales increased by 1.9%; the lowest annual growth since 2013.
British households have come under intense pressure from weak wage growth and rising inflation, after the sudden drop in sterling following the Brexit vote pushed up the cost of importing food and fuel to the UK. Growth in consumer spending has slowed as a consequence, denting the strength of the economy.
Compared to December a year ago there was a 1.4% increase in the amount bought by consumers overall. However, sales of food fell by 0.2% compared to Christmas in 2016, which statisticians said was probably due to rising prices in the shops. But the drop in sales from November to December – which was the biggest monthly fall since June 2016 – rounded off a difficult year on the high street.
Heavy discounting around Black Friday is likely to have hit retailers’ profits, as well as having been a likely factor behind slower sales on Boxing Day, which is usually a bumper day for retailers, according to Keith Richardson of Lloyds Bank.
“The supermarkets managed to keep the tills ringing with sales of mince pies, prosecco and craft gins, but even this wasn’t enough to hide the fact that non-food suffered a sluggish month,” he said.