UK shoppers rein in spending as Brexit nears

Retail sales volumes fell 0.2 percent in the fourth quarter after a 0.2 percent rise in the three months to November. (AFP)
Updated 18 January 2019
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UK shoppers rein in spending as Brexit nears

  • Retail sales volumes fell 0.2 percent in the fourth quarter after a 0.2 percent rise in the three months to November
  • Businesses are also cutting investment before Britain’s scheduled departure from the EU in late March

LONDON: British shoppers cut back on spending in the three months to December for the first time since last spring, adding to evidence of a consumer slowdown as Brexit approaches, data showed on Friday.
Retail sales volumes fell 0.2 percent in the fourth quarter after a 0.2 percent rise in the three months to November, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) said.
Friday’s data chimed with other signs that consumer spending is cooling after a strong summer.
Businesses are also cutting investment before Britain’s scheduled departure from the European Union in late March, leaving the overall economy growing at a snail’s pace.
In December alone, retail sales fell 0.9 percent, recoiling after November’s Black Friday splurges, but were 3.0 percent higher than a year earlier. Both readings were below economists’ forecasts in a Reuters poll.
“A major concern for retailers will be that already cautious consumers further limit their spending in the near term at least due to the heightened uncertainties over Brexit,” economist Howard Archer from the EY ITEM Club consultancy said.
Sterling and British government bonds were little changed after the data.
The ONS said the value of sales fell for the first time in three years in the three months to December, underlining a squeeze on retailers’ profit margins as they battle for customers.
A survey last week from the British Retail Consortium showed retailers failed to increase Christmas sales for the first time since the depths of the global financial crisis a decade ago.
Supermarkets Sainsbury’s and Morrison missed Christmas sales forecasts though Tesco beat them. Clothing retailer Next and department store John Lewis reported a late surge in demand.
The ONS data showed a drop in sales of carpets and floor coverings, possibly reflecting a stalling housing market.
While disarray over Brexit has weighed on consumer confidence, there has been some comfort for households recently with the fastest underlying pay growth since 2008 and inflation falling to an almost two-year low of 2.1 percent.
Highlighting the easing of inflation pressures, the ONS’s measure of annual price increases in stores cooled to 0.6 percent in December from 1.3 percent in November, the smallest uptick in more than two years.


Saudi consumers splashing the cash once more, says Mastercard boss

Updated 1 min 40 sec ago
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Saudi consumers splashing the cash once more, says Mastercard boss

RIYADH: Saudi Arabian consumers are increasingly spending cash — and using their credit cards online — after a period of relative parsimony, the head of one of the biggest providers of consumer payment systems told Arab News.

J.K. Khalil, the general manager of Mastercard in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, said that there has been an appreciable pickup in consumer spending in the first quarter of 2019, in contrast to the slump that followed the introduction of value-added tax last year.

Speaking on the sidelines of the Financial Sector Conference in Riyadh, Khalil said: “There are positive signals that last year’s situation is being reversed. We have seen an overall relaxation in the economy. It’s not yet back to previous levels, but there has been a positive trend reversal.”

Khalil described the upturn as a “positive single-digit increase.”

The Mastercard regional boss said that the trend would continue. “We are expecting the second quarter to be better than the first, and we are confident that will happen,” he said.

A lot of the upturn has been in the form of online transactions, he said. “We are seeing an increase not just in the physical retail space, but also online. Consumers see increasingly that cards can be used online and offline,” Khalil added.

Some 30 million debit cards are now used for e-commerce transactions in the Kingdom, Khalil said.

Mastercard’s optimistic view was echoed by several participants at the Financial Sector Conference. Finance Minister Mohammed Al-Jadaan opened the first day of the event with the surprise announcement that the Kingdom’s budget had recorded its first quarterly surplus in five years.

Mohammed Al-Tuwaijri, the minister for economy and planning, said on Thursday that unemployment was down in the Kingdom, even though there were a large number of new entrants to the jobs market.

Elsewhere at the event, which closed on Thursday, there were expressions that the Kingdom had “turned the corner” from the downturn that hit after the collapse in oil prices in 2014. One operator of a major retail chain, who asked not to be identified, said that footfall in the capital’s malls was ahead of last year, and the trend was expected to continue this year.