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Retail Sector Picks up Steam Ahead of Key Christmas Period, Caution is the Watchword for Near-Term Outlook

Retail sales

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Data from the CBI shows UK retailers to have enjoyed a strong pickup in activity ahead of the crucial Christmas trading period.

According to the CBI's Distributive Trades Survey for November, retail sales growth picked up in the year to November after growth largely stalled in October.

The Distributive Trades Survey gave a reading of 19 for November where markets had been forecasting a reading of 10, the October reading was at 5.

Retailers expect sales volumes to expand at a roughly similar pace in the year to December.

Orders placed on suppliers recovered in the year to November, following a fall in October, and are expected to grow at a similar pace next month.

Sales remained below average for the time of year, although to a lesser degree than last month. The survey covers only the first half of the month, so it will miss the make-or-break Black Friday sales period.

"Growth in the official measure of retail sales might be stronger than implied by the CBI’s survey if more shoppers than usual have delayed making purchases until Black Friday," says Samuel Tombs, Chief UK Economist with Pantheon Macroeconomics.

Employment in the retail sector declined for the eighth quarter in a row in the year to November, but at a slower pace than in the year to August. Average selling prices grew at a slower pace in the year to November compared to August but, are still far above the long-run average. Prices are expected to increase at a similar pace in December.

Looking ahead, retailers expect sales volumes to pick up next month (+22%), with 34% expecting them to rise and 12% to fall.

Retailers expect their overall business situation to deteriorate over the next three months (-9%).

Investment intentions for the next 12 months compared with the last 12 months in November were roughly flat (-3%) following a decline in in August (-10%).

"Retailers were cautious about the near-term outlook; indeed, the balance of retailers expecting sales to rise over the next month was lower than in any other November since 2011. The recent dip in consumers’ confidence, linked to Brexit uncertainty, might lead to particular weakness in big-ticket sales," says Pantheon Macroeconomics' Tombs.