Earlier today (22nd April) the March figures from the Scottish Retail Sales Monitor (managed by the British Retail Consortium and KPMG) were published. They were as bad as everyone expected, and the commentary in the media showed due concern (for example, BBC and the Herald).
The front page of Monitor is reproduced below (and ANGRY FACE ON as I’ll come to the ludicrious part of the headline later) and the headlines are clear. Total sales in Scotland 13% down on last March (Like for Like down 14.5%), Non-food sales down 33.6% or 27.9% online adjusted. “A Shocking Month” is only the half of it. And talking of halves, food retail was UP 12.1% during this period. Within the month of March retail sales were UP 9% in the first three weeks and then DOWN 44% in the last two weeks.
To get a more visual sense of the scale of the carnage, the graph below plots total retail sales in Scotland according to the SRSM since the series started, disaggregated by food and non-food. This series and these graphs have figured in this blog before, but never quite looking like this.
If you look at the chart above then you might be wondering why previous posts in 2011, 2012 and 2014 have all pointed to the worst ever sales in Scotland. The scale of the impact of COVID19 and the lockdown on retailing and retail sales is all too obvious. We have never seen anything like this in non-food, and rarely seen such growth in food. Never has there been such a disparity between food and non-food.
Now none of this is much of a suprise. For a lot of the month food was beset by panic buying in anticipation of lockdown and as a diversion from the closure of food and beverage and restaurant outlets. Non-food was in the main deemed non-essential and stores forced to close. As Primark noted they went from sales of £650m per month to ZERO.
My second graph however is rather more puzling to me. This shows that in March total retail sales in Scotland were down 13% as noted above. However the data from the Monitor suggest that total retail sales in the UK as a whole were down “only” 4.3%. Now, 4.3% is bad, and pretty much unheard of in the series since 1999, but it is nowhere near the calamitous 13%.
So, is Scotland really suffering that much more badly than the rest of the UK? I really doubt this, and am struggling to see an explanation for the difference. We did perhaps go into lockdown slightly earlier up here. Maybe we are better behaved? Perhaps geography and the internet (which this series has some difficulties with) have a differential impact. Possibly other “regions” of England have a similar pattern to Scotland but are masked by the South East and London (after all Dave Lewis of Tesco did say earlier in the week that panic buying was an affluent and London and south-east phenomenon mainly, and I suspect he had Clubcard data backing this up). Potentially the sample behind this survey is being differentially impacted in Scotland and/or the sample does not pick up the switch to local stores and local collective internet sales that well. But the difference between Scotland and the UK as a whole is quite stark.
This will be something to watch in next month’s figures.
Given that today is the 22nd April and we have been in lockdown for all of April, the next set of figures are likely to be even worse. Food will not have had the early March and panic-buying bounce but will continue to benefit from the out of home eating switch. But non-food will have been mostly shut down and the internet has not been a sufficient replacement. The figures are likely to be dire.
Behind these data are people’s businesses and livelihoods and whilst many retail and supply workers are being rightly praised for their efforts, many other retail workers have been laid off, sacked or furloughed. Their lives have gone backwards or are on hold. We need to think of them at this time.
ANGRY FACE BACK ON – the title at the heead of the Monitor this month is deeply misleading. This is not a High Street issue alone; it is a retail issue. Just look at the closed shopping centres, retail parks, stand alone out of town store and food places. There was no need to make this about the high street; it gets enough bad publicity already. And the data in the Monitor do not allow differentiation between high street and out of town. Yes our town centres are suffering, but other retail and leisure sites and places away from town centres and high streets are also in the same difficult position. We have a crisis of retail not of high streets alone.