November sees retail sales slump ahead of Black Friday

Edmund Heaphy
·Finance and news reporter
Shoppers crowd onto Oxford street on the last day of Christmas shopping, in London, Sunday, Dec. 24, 2017. (Victoria Jones/PA via AP)
Shoppers crowd onto Oxford street on the last day of Christmas shopping, in London, Sunday, Dec. 24, 2017. (Victoria Jones/PA via AP)

Retail sales unexpectedly plunged in November, with the run-up to Christmas failing to boost the high street, according to official figures.

The sector saw a 0.6% decline in sales compared to October, when analysts had expected a modest 0.3% boost.

However, the period analysed by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) did not include Black Friday, which this year fell on 29 November.

The only types of stores that saw growth in the month were household goods stores, the ONS said on Thursday.

The month-on-month decline is the worst for the retail sector since January, when sales fell by 0.9%.

Compared to the same month last year, retail sales grew by only 1% — the weakest year-on-year growth since April 2018, the ONS noted.

READ MORE: Shocking figure on UK poverty dubbed 'stat of the year' in 2019

The comparison with last year strips out the effect of Black Friday, which occurred earlier in 2018.

There was a 1.1% decline in sales at non-food stores compared to November 2018.

Meanwhile, non-store retailing, which primarily covers online retailers, saw a fall of 2.5% in the three months to the end of November.

“All main sectors saw their sales fall with the exception of food stores,” said ONS statistician Rhian Murphy.

But compared to the same month last year, non-store retailing saw the biggest increase of any category, climbing 0.9%.

Combined with statistics like weak wage growth, the poor month for the sector will be seen as another warning sign about the health of the UK economy.

Consumer demand and household spending have been a key driver of the British economy since the 2016 Brexit referendum.

But retail sales declined in October and were unchanged in September, in a sign that record low unemployment levels and reasonably low inflation are not translating into higher spending.

Analysts nevertheless cautioned against overanalysing the retail sales data, noting that, though the ONS had attempted to account for the impact of Black Friday, it still likely distorted the data.

“This is the first time since Black Friday was widely adopted in the UK in 2014 that November’s data have not encompassed it,” said Samuel Tombs, the chief UK economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics.

READ MORE: Probe launched into hedge funds hijacking Bank of England audio

“In theory, the ONS has accounted for the impact of this timing shift this year with its seasonally adjusted data. But we know from past years that these adjustments have been too small when Black Friday has been included, with initial estimates of sales growth in November being too high,” he said.

However, separate data published earlier this month showed that supermarket sales growth slowed to just 0.5% in the preceding twelve weeks, as shoppers postponed Christmas preparations amid poor weather and general election uncertainty.

Customers made one fewer visits to supermarkets compared to the same period last year, while Black Friday provided only a limited boost to supermarkets.

“Amid the uncertainty of a general election, a lacklustre Black Friday and a wet autumn, shoppers have been delaying their Christmas preparations and are waiting to stock up on festive supplies,” research firm Kantar said last week.