Why 2019 wasn’t the ‘worst year on record’ for retailers

    9 January 2020

    As Matt Ridley reminded Spectator readers over Christmas, news headlines tend to reflect the worst of life, despite things getting better year on year. This is often true of the big issues like our effect on the climate, but can be true right across the board, for smaller, more niche topics as well.

    Today’s example: UK retail industry figures from the British Retail Consortium (BRC), which calls 2019 the ‘worst year for retail in 25 years’.

    The trade body’s numbers, published today, find total sales in the UK fell by 0.1 per cent from 2018, the first decline in annual sales since 1995. The BRC also highlight relatively poor sales in November and December last year, which fell 0.9 per cent.

    On the face of it, news of marginally declining retail sales seems in line our broader narrative about struggling high streets and changes in consumers’ shopping and spending habits. But long-term evidence challenges this grim interpretation of the figures, and breaking down different areas of retail reveals that it’s not all bad news – especially for consumers.

    Contrary to the claim that 2019 was the ‘worst year’ for retail in a quarter of a century, the annual sales value of Britain’s retailing sector has been on a fairly consistent rise for well over a decade.

    The total value of retail sales (excluding fuel) was £125 billion less in 2005 than it was in 2018. While 2019 may have been a year of sluggish retail growth, it’s strange to categorise it the ‘worst year’, as if annual retail figures from the early 1990s or early 2000s would be more preferable to todays.

    But BRC is clearly focused on the state of the high street, rather than the retail market overall, as their survey excludes some of today’s most important online retail players, like Amazon, which now account for one in every five pounds spent on British retail (a Retail Economics report estimated last year that over half of UK retail sales will be online by 2030).

    There’s no doubt that traditional brick and mortar shops are suffering consequences from a combination of factors, including price competition from online retailers and outdated public policy around business rates, which have contributed to recent high street struggles, highlighted by BRC’s figures.

    But while people are switching their traditional shopping habits for clothes and toys on the high street to experience-based purchases (cinema tickets, dining out and ordering in), the total sales value of retail (including fuel) has remained fairly consistent month on month over the past five years. While customers are changing their purchasing preferences, they are not abandoning their consumerist tendencies all together.

    As a representative trade body, it’s the job of BRC to highlight the struggles its members face; but to brand 2019 the worst year for retail ignores the promising trends in new kinds of retail, giving consumers more choice and flexibility in their lifestyles than ever before.