August UK retail sales: clothing dips, official stats shows impact of inflation

UK retail sales volumes fell by 1.6% in August compared to July, continuing a downward trend that started in 2021. In recent months, rising prices and their impact on the cost of living have been affecting sales volumes.

The figures are the official ones from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) and show that all main sectors (food stores, non-food stores, non-store retailing and fuel) fell during the month. The last time that happened was July 2021.

The ONS added that non-food stores sales volumes fell by more than the sector as a whole, with a 1.9% month-on-month drop because of falls in each of its sub-sectors. The ‘other non-food stores’ category was down 2.8%, department stores were down 2.7%, and household goods stores down 1.1%. While clothing stores were also in negative territory, the fact that they dropped just 0.6% is a small crumb of comfort. But compared to February 2020 (that is, just before the pandemic), they were down 5.7%.

Meanwhile, non-store retailing (predominantly online retailers) sales volumes fell by 2.6%, but were still 24.4% above their February 2020 levels, highlighting how essential e-tail is to the wider retail sector in Britain post-pandemic.

Looking at the figures more fully, as well as those month-on-month volume declines, the value of UK retail spending dropped by 1.4% in August when motor fuel is excluded. 

Meanwhile, inflation made its presence felt with volumes (again, excluding motor fuel) falling by 5% year on year, but the value of sales was still up 3.7% due to higher prices.

Compared to the last month before the pandemic started, the value was 12.4% higher last month with petrol taken out of the mix (+13.7% when it was included), while volumes were only up 1.6%, another stark reminder of the impact of inflation. 

Online sales last month made up 25.7% of total retail sales but were down 9.5% year on year. Textiles clothing and footwear e-stores were down 7.4% on the year and 2.9% month on month with e-fashion sales accounting for a slightly higher percentage of the total than the wider retail sector at 25.8%.

The figures paint a gloomy picture and Oliver Vernon-Harcourt, head of retail at Deloitte, said it doesn’t bode well for what should be the business retail season of the year. He said: “Retailers, who are also battling rising costs, may be revising expectations ahead of the critical Golden Quarter, with ongoing uncertainty amongst consumers around how much they will be able to spend over the coming months. In this case, it may get worse before it gets better. However, the festive period will be an opportunity for retailers to showcase the best they have to offer to attract consumer spending.”