A surge in shopping from home has eased the pressure on retailers caused by England’s four-week lockdown and tighter restrictions in the rest of the UK, according to a survey from the CBI.
The employers’ organisation reported that while the level of spending was well below normal there were also clear signs of consumers substituting online purchases for visits to stores in person.
In its monthly distributive trades survey, the CBI said a balance of -25 percentage points of retailers said trading was below normal for the time of year, compared with a balance of -23 points in October. The balance represents the difference between the retailers saying activity is higher and those saying it is lower.
With non-essential stores shut in England from 5 November, the survey found annual internet sales growth picking up. A balance of 55% of retailers said the volume of goods shifted online was up year on year, against 47% the previous month.
A breakdown by retail sector revealed that department stores had the toughest month, with a balance of -96% reporting a fall in sales compared with a year ago. There were also sizeable drops for clothing and footwear outlets.
Ben Jones, CBI economist, said: “This month’s survey gives hope that the economic impact of the autumn lockdowns should not be as severe as in the spring. Both consumers and firms are adapting as best they can, borne out in this month’s strong online sales.
“For many retail sectors, particularly those with less of an online presence, conditions remain extremely challenging. Retailers will be looking to salvage what they can from a very difficult year and many will be greatly relieved by the announcement that they can reopen over the crucial Christmas trading period.
“With encouraging progress on mass, rapid testing and vaccine solutions coming down the track, there is reason for growing consumer and business confidence going into 2021.”
Samuel Tombs, analyst at Pantheon, said the timing of the survey was partly responsible for the findings being less weak than expected.
The CBI conducted its research between 27 October and November, with the period leading up to the English lockdown marked by a surge of activity by consumers keen to beat the tougher restrictions.
Tombs said he expected the official retail sales figures to show a 10% drop in spending in November, followed by a 15% jump to a new record in December.