Retailers enjoyed an extremely strong month in March, as the mild weather resulted in sales rising ahead of expectation. Value and volume growth were 6.6% and 6.2% respectively when compared with the same month last year, as several subsectors performed exceptionally well. This carries on the robust run of results for the high street in 2019, with both January and February also showing high year-on-year growth.
Continuing the positive news, after 37 months of footfall decline, the UK high street was finally able to buck the trend in March, as the warm weather meant that the number of visitors to the UK's high streets and other retail centres increased by 0.1% when compared with the same month in 2018.
Overall, the UK economy remained strong in March, demonstrated by an economic growth rate of 0.5% in the first quarter of 2019. Another month of falling unemployment was coupled with the highest level of real earnings growth since the summer of 2016. The rate of consumer credit growth declined slightly to 3.4%, substantially below the rate of expansion seen in early 2018.
Whilst the headlines reflected welcome good news for the industry, the retail sector remained extremely polarised with news of further restructuring and failures. This was evidenced by the recent CVA at Debenhams, along with the administration of fashion retailer Select—with more likely to follow throughout the course of 2019.
Overall, however, the sector performed extremely well in March and retailers will be hoping this positive trend continues into the critical summer season.
As mentioned earlier, unemployment continued its impressive run, as the number of people looking for jobs fell by 27,000 to 1.34 million in the three months to February. The ONS reported that the unemployment rate remained at 3.9%, the lowest rate since 1975.
Real earnings growth (including bonuses) increased slightly to 1.5%, the highest figure since the summer of 2016. Nevertheless, despite earnings growing above inflation for over a year now, in real terms wages remain below the pre-crisis level, suggesting the UK economy still has a way to go to demonstrate strength and stability, particularly with the continued uncertainty around Brexit.
Unsecured consumer borrowing rose to £216.7 billion in March, an increase of 3.4% when compared to the same month in the prior year—the smallest growth rate since the start of 2014. This will come as welcome news for the Bank of England, who have been keen for lenders to tighten their underwriting standards, amidst fears of a mounting consumer debt bubble.
With growth and inflation anticipated to increase more than previously forecast, Mark Carney, the Governor of the Bank of England, has warned that the economy will require "more, and more frequent, interest rate increases than the market currently expects". Any increase in the interest rate is likely to be bad news for retailers as household spending, predominately driven by increased consumer credit, has underpinned the UK’s economic expansion since the Brexit referendum.
After 37 months of consecutive decline, the UK high street was finally able to buck the trend in March, as the number of visitors to the UK's high streets and other retail centres increased by 0.1% when compared with the same month in 2018.
Scotland and the North East recorded the largest improvements with an increase of 5.3% and 3.9% respectively, whilst the South East and Northern Ireland experienced a sharp decline of 3.5% compared to last year.
Unfortunately for high street retailers, March’s increase in footfall is unlikely to represent a significant change to the underlying trends seen within the sector. The Met Office reported that March 2019 had the 10th warmest mean temperature since records began in 1910, while March 2018 was negatively impacted from the 'Beast from the East'.
The housing market continued to remain stagnant in April, with annual price growth now standing at 0.9% compared with 0.7% in January. This is relatively consistent with what has been seen throughout the past six months, compared with the 4.5% growth rate seen as recently as 2017.
Housing prices are heavily tied to household sentiment, and with increased economic uncertainty it is perhaps not surprising that consumers are steering clear of the housing market.
Weak demand has been somewhat offset by a reduced supply, with data published by the National Association of Estate Agents (NAEA) suggesting that the typical estate agency had just 37 properties available for sale during March—the lowest figure ever recorded for the month.