Comment: Retailers should enjoy clearer skies ahead

AUGUST is a wicked month, as they say. Particularly for retailers, and particularly when it is a wet one, not exactly unthinkable for August in Britain. Anecdotally, there has been plenty of high street talk that the summer has been generally flat for the retail sector.
Martin Flanagan. Picture: Fiona HansonMartin Flanagan. Picture: Fiona Hanson
Martin Flanagan. Picture: Fiona Hanson

That bellwether of Middle Britain, John Lewis, was the latest yesterday to reveal tough trading last month. The group said sales in the final week of August slid 3.4 per cent compared with last year, after falling nearly 6 per cent in the previous week, and down 3 per cent overall in the month. Sales at John Lewis’s flagship store in London’s Oxford Street were down in double-digits.

And accountancy firm BDO provided further statistical evidence that it was a difficult month, saying retail sales fell 4.3 per cent compared to a year ago.

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That was the biggest fall since November 2008, the height of the financial crisis and when Britain was mired in recession.

Should the sector panic, however? Pretty much certainly not. August is one of the most maverick trading months of the year for retailers.

Many consumers, particularly those with children, are away on holiday so not around to shop. Other consumers are returning from holidays earlier in the summer having spent a lot of money, and feeling the need to repair bank and credit card balances rather than splash out more.

And poor August weather, quite likely in Britain meteorologicaly, can exacerbate the slow footfall in shops as some depressed consumers decide to head off abroad for a later burst of sun to get away from it all.

My guess is John Lewis and the rest will have a much better September, not least because this month kicks off the autumn buying season (with most clothes retailers welcoming the chillier weather unlike in August because it encourages consumers to feel they must stock up for the coming temperature change).

Also, by latish September some of the summer holiday damage done to wallets and purses has been repaired by having paid down some debt, and consumers are feeling financially healthier again.

Then, I think, last month will be seen as a blip and something approaching normal high street service should be renewed.