Three trading weeks into January and most of the Trading Statements are out. It comes as no surprise that we still don’t have a clear view of what happened. The BRC called it the worst Christmas trade seen in 10 years and intuitively, I think this is right. The ONS data today is full of flaws. For example, it says that small retail businesses had a bumper Christmas but large ones struggled. Rather more believably, further analysis of the data shows that while online retail across all non-foods grew 15% YoY, physical retail went backwards by 1.5%.
Looking at the Statements, trading appears to have been rather better than feared. Indeed, it looks a bit better than the headline data from the BRC and ONS. However, I would warn against taking the Statements at face value. Every company uses different criteria, so they cannot be read across from one business to another. Indeed, they cannot always be read YoY for one company. They are not audited and the numbers, definitions and timeframes can be changed.
A growing variable is returns. As online gets bigger, so returns become a bigger proportion of sales. Given gifting, returns will be even higher than usual. December’s total non-food sales were 29% online against 26% the year before. Virtually no Trading Statement mentions returns. The timing of most Statement meant that the vast bulk of returns would not yet have come through. In other words, effectively retailers reported “gross” sales.
If we want Christmas Trading Statement to be a more reliable barometer of retail performance, they need to be independently audited and regulated with agreed transparent ground rules. Until this happens, large grains of salt are strongly recommended.
One final point about Q1 2019 and judging retail performance. The “Beast From The East” had a massive impact on trading performance last year. The comps are therefore very soft and need to be taken into account. However, in cash terms this will be irrelevant and I suspect many retailers have entered the New Year in a materially weaker cash position YoY.
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