LONDON (Reuters) – British retail sales fell by their most in 17 months in March, reflecting concern among shoppers about Britain’s unresolved Brexit impasse, a leading employers group said on Wednesday. The Confederation of British Industry said some of the decline might have been caused by Easter’s coming later this year than last year. But the poor run in the data — the balance has not been positive for four months — suggested an underlying caution among British shoppers, whose spending helps drive the economy. Shoppers have generally shown less doubt about Brexit than the country’s employers, who have scaled back their investment before the country’s departure from the European Union, which remains up in the air.
The CBI said its monthly sales balance fell to -18, meaning more retailers reported falling than rising sales. A Reuters poll of economists had forecast a reading of +5. Anna Leach, the CBI’s head of economic intelligence, said the gradual pick-up in wages and a weakening of inflation had been helping households but consumer confidence was hit by escalating uncertainty over Brexit and the economy. A separate report published earlier on Wednesday showed British companies scaled back their hiring and their investment plans.
“The pain currently being felt on the high street is yet another reason why it is so vitally important politicians agree a deal in parliament that is acceptable to the EU and protects our economy,” Leach said. “No-deal must be averted at all costs.”
The CBI said retailers thought sales would pick up in April, but the scale of the expected recovery was smaller than a month earlier.
Samuel Tombs, an economist with consultancy Pantheon Macroeconomics, said he was placing more weight on CBI’s sales-for-the-time-of-year balance which was a better signal for official retail sales data than the headline balance. It rose to its highest level since June, suggesting overall retail sales volumes remained on course to rise by about 1.0 percent quarter-on-quarter in the first three months of 2019.
“Consumers will ensure that overall GDP remains on a slowly rising path, despite the Brexit hit to capex (capital expenditure),” he said.
The CBI survey was conducted between Feb. 26 and March 18. A total of 105 companies took part, of which 50 were retailers, 47 were wholesalers and eight were motor traders.