Retail nerves in the run-up to Christmas have been fuelled after new figures showed a rush of promotions failed to revive sales last month.
The British Retail Consortium (BRC) claimed reluctance of shoppers to make big purchases caused the sector’s worst sales performance since May, with like-for-like sales 1.6% lower than a year earlier.
On Monday, department store John Lewis reported a 9.6% year-on-year increase in sales but, for the rest of the UK, BRC director-general Stephen Robertson said there was “a worrying lack of cheer” in the figures.
Results also showed that when shoppers did part with their cash it was on promotional and discounted items.
He added: “Retailers hope that customers who’ve managed their finances carefully in recent months will still treat themselves and their families in December, unhampered by the severe weather which disrupted shopping 12 months ago.”
In contrast to last autumn’s big chill, clothing retailers saw their worst year-on-year performance in more than two years after a warm November dented demand for coats and jumpers.
Some consolation could be sought from sales on handbags and jewellery due to people accessorising existing clothes rather than splashing out on a whole new outfit.
Sales of electrical products were found to be often deal-driven as customers’ uncertainty about job and income prospects continued to hit trade, especially for larger purchases. Many shoppers were looking for replacements rather than upgrades, the BRC added.
The weather even impacted on health and beauty sales with cough and cold and winter skincare products struggling due to the mild weather.
And toiletries and cosmetics showed their first year-on-year fall for two years, despite various deals and discounts.
Food sales figures suggest that people are opting to stay in more than going out to eat as premium food lines did well, including ready meals and meal deals.
However, food sales growth was little changed from October when it had slowed to its weakest since June, with promotions doing well as shoppers remained cautious and bought into special offers.
There was bad news for books, with sales of paperback fiction well down on a year ago, thought to be hit by consumer caution and the growth in e-books.
Internet, mail order and phone sales on non-food products fell back in November after picking up in October with sales 8.6% up on a year ago, the weakest since March and half the previous November’s increase.
Helen Dickinson, head of retail at survey partner KPMG, said: “The latest figures prove once more that the health of UK retailing is deteriorating.
“Christmas is a crucial trading period for the UK retail sector but this year many retailers will be nervous and unsure as to how the season will pan out.”