Consumer

Andrea Felsted is a Bloomberg Gadfly columnist covering the consumer and retail industries. She previously worked at the Financial Times.

The bad news for retailers is probably about to get worse.

Official statistics Thursday showed that sales fell 1.3 percent in March from the previous month, a much bigger drop than economists had forecast. This number tends to be volatile, and it looked like there was still some reason to be cheerful since the three-month reading showed 0.8 percent growth.

But the smarter move might be to put that champagne on ice. The problem? Brexit.

Bad News for U.K. Retailers
Unexpectedly big drop in March sales numbers may be a sign of things to come
Source: U.K. Office for National Statistics

The clothing retailer Next warned last month that this year could be the most difficult since 2008, the start of the financial crisis. Even Primark, which has outpaced the rest of the market, said on Tuesday that trading in the U.K. was tough.

The cards were already stacking up against retailers. Fashion stores are suffering from cold weather, which is never good for sales. 

Out of Fashion
A recent cold snap has chilled Britons' willingness to splash out on new outfits
Source: U.K. Office for National Statistics

There are also signs that the economy is softening, with U.K. unemployment rising for the first time in seven months, and employers adding far fewer jobs than forecast.

Softer U.K. Labor Market is Bad News for Retailers
Though it's not clear if the recent jump in jobless benefit claims is the start of a worsening trend
Source: U.K. Office for National Statistics

The shine has even come off electrical goods, according to official statistics.

Spin Cycle
Britons' love affair with new electrical appliances has hit a little bump
Source: U.K. Office for National Statistics

Now executives are also seeing a drag from Brexit. One big retailer's proprietary research found that consumer confidence had taken a dip -- particularly among older shoppers -- and was at its lowest level for a year. Uncertainty around the referendum on EU membership was cited as one of the factors behind the fall in confidence.

By the time the vote happens on June 23 many will have given up on splashing out on a new summer wardrobe, barring a big heatwave before the vote that sparks a pickup in demand for sandals and strapless maxidresses. They will wait for the sales instead, which typically start around that time, buying only what they need, and for less. 

The pullback comes as spending power has expanded over the past couple of years, as wages have risen and inflation cooled. And there are still some areas that seem to be holding up.

Some of that extra money has gone to leisure activities, including eating out. According to the latest Greene King Leisure Spend Tracker, published on Wednesday, spending on the sector rebounded in March, thanks to an earlier Easter.

Indigestion
U.K. leisure spending rebounded over Easter after showing signs of slowing
Source: Greene King Leisure Spend Tracker

And while consumers may not have used extra income to buy an expensive bottle of wine in a supermarket or to add a new frock to their wardrobe, they have been prepared to spend on cars. 

Brits Are Big on Cars, Still
Newfound spending power has found its way to new vehicles, less so than for other retailers
Source: Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders in London

The next round of car sales data will come early next month, and we'll see if that enthusiasm has continued.

But leaving these areas aside, it is little wonder then that the market values of Britain's non-food retailers have been drifting down. The FTSE 350 General Retail Index has fallen 5 per cent since the beginning of March, underperforming the broader market.

With mixed economic signals, and the looming Brexit vote, some retailers will be hoping the sun starts shining soon.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Andrea Felsted in London at afelsted@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Jennifer Ryan at jryan13@bloomberg.net