UK retail sales enjoy Black Friday and pre-festive bounce but dark clouds gathering

Retail sales across the UK gathered pace last month as shoppers hit the high street for early Christmas shopping and Black Friday, official figures indicate, though the outlook remains uncertain.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) said retail sales volumes increased by 1.4 per cent for November, accelerating from a 0.8 per cent increase in October.

The reading was better than expected, with analysts having forecast that growth would remain steady at 0.8 per cent.

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The ONS said UK sales volumes across the sector were now 7.2 per cent higher than their pre-pandemic levels from February 2020.

Shoppers pictured on Edinburgh's famous Princes Street. Picture: Jane Barlow/PA Wire

November was boosted by non-food sales in stores, which lifted by 2 per cent for the month. It highlighted that this was particularly boosted by 2.9 per cent growth in sales at clothing stores, which saw sales surpass pre-pandemic levels for the first time.

The UK-wide data comes after rather more downbeat findings from the Scottish Retail Consortium (SRC) earlier this week.

Its latest sales monitor showed that total sales north of the Border increased by 2.6 per cent last month compared with November 2020. However, on a two-year comparison basis, total sales continue to perform well below pre-pandemic levels - down 13.4 per cent compared with November 2019.

Ewan MacDonald-Russell, head of policy at the SRC, which produces the monthly sales monitor together with KPMG, said: “November was less Black Friday and more bleak winter as Scottish retail sales slipped by 13.4 per cent compared to pre-pandemic trading.”

The ONS said the proportion of retail sales which were online moved back to 26.9 per cent in November, as it slid back again to its lowest proportion since March last year.

Heather Bovill, deputy director for surveys and economic indicators at the ONS, said: “Retail sales picked up in November, boosted by strong Black Friday and pre-Christmas trading.

“Clothing stores fared particularly well and have exceeded their pre-pandemic level for the first time. Computer, toy and jewellery retailers also reported robust sales this month.

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“With more consumers choosing to visit the high street and retail parks, the proportion of online sales continued on a downward trend, to their lowest level since March 2020.”

Euan Murray, relationship director and retail sector expert at Barclays Corporate Banking, Scotland, said: “Retailers across Scotland will now be worried about the impact of the new Omicron variant on consumer confidence. Concerns about Covid would normally drive consumers online, but issues with delivery and product availability mean many could turn to our high streets for their final items of Christmas shopping.

“Increasing costs are also on the mind of Scottish retailers, with each of them having to decide how much they can absorb and how much will need to be passed onto consumers.”

Lynda Petherick, head of retail, Accenture UKI, said: “After an autumn of underwhelming sales growth, November brought some much-needed festive cheer for retailers, who benefited from early Christmas shoppers aiming to avoid supply chain-related issues.

“Celebrations may be short-lived, however, with the Omicron variant throwing the sector into further turbulence.”

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