Indie retailers assess trading conditions ahead of Christmas

According to the Office of National Statistics, retail sales volumes fell by 0.2% in September 2021, pulled down by lower sales in non-food stores as household goods stores sales volumes fell by 9.3% compared with August. Non-food stores as a whole saw monthly sales volumes fall by 1.4% in September 2021 and were 1.7% below their pre-coronavirus pandemic levels in February 2020.

The fall in household goods sales volume was largely due to a fall of 14.8% in furniture and lighting stores. Sales in the household goods sector have fallen each month since their peak in May 2021, following the re-opening of non-essential retailing in April, and were 1.0% below their levels in February 2020.
Other non-food stores (such as chemists, toy stores and sports equipment stores) reported a monthly fall in sales volumes of 1.7% in September 2021. Sales volumes were 3.7% lower than this time last year but 3.4% above their pre-COVID-19 levels.

Clothing and department stores reported an increase in monthly sales volume of 4.3% and 0.2% respectably. Sales volumes were 5.5% and 5.1% below their pre-pandemic February levels.

Food store sales volumes rose by 0.6% in September 2021 and were 3.9% above pre-coronavirus pandemic levels in February 2020.
The overall report followed an upwardly-revised 0.6% fall in August and, despite the fall in September, volumes were 4.2% higher than their pre-coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic February 2020 levels.

Online spending values increased in September 2021 by 0.5% when compared with August 2021, largely because of an increase in department stores sales values (3.8%). The monthly increase in online spending values resulted in a slight increase in the proportion of online sales, which increased to 28.1% in September 2021, from 27.9% in August. This remains far higher than the proportion of online retail spending in February 2020, before the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, of 19.7%, although it is below the peak pandemic level of 36.6% reached in February 2021.

Despite relaxation of COVID-19 restrictions in summer 2021, in-store retail sales remain subdued; the proportion of retail sales online rose to 28.1% in September 2021 from 27.9% in August, substantially higher than the 19.7% in February 2020 before the pandemic.

Independent voices

Jamie Rackham, founder of Facebook group, Not on Amazon, said: “At Not on Amazon, there’s currently a lot of discussion in the group about relatively low sales. That said, our members are generally optimistic about the Christmas period given that large retailers are having problems getting their stock through the post-Brexit customs checks in time to sell. We have also seen a noticeable shift in attitude during the pandemic with more and more people deciding to support independents rather than faceless corporations after experiencing financial hardship first hand. There are bound to be some who have already bought all their presents but I think a good number of people are going to be waiting until the last minute to see how much cash they have spare, if any. Hopefully, they’ll then be buying local.”

Dee Featherstone, founder of Peterborough-based The Little Sensory Box said: “September and October have thankfully been really busy months for my business, but I am really struggling to get the stock I require to keep providing my subscription boxes and only feel this is going to get worse. For smaller retailers, it feels like everything has got harder to source. The supply chain crisis has been amplified for smaller businesses.”

Natalie Bamford, Creative Director of Derby-based Colleague Box said: “Supply chain issues are a growing problem for smaller retailers. While corporate giants like Amazon can be slightly affected by them, and may take a minor profits hit, small businesses can often go under. It’s that serious. For us, September and October have been steady but not brilliant because many businesses haven’t wanted to commit to pre-ordering for Christmas, as they don’t know if we will be in or out of lockdown. Companies don’t know if they will be organising Christmas events face-to-face or delivering gift boxes for virtual events. There’s so much uncertainty that you can’t blame businesses for not wanting to commit, but we get pushed by suppliers to pre-order stock, which makes it tricky. Retail is a rollercoaster.”

Jane Helliwell, founder of Chesterfield-based The Scent Styling Company (pictured) commented: “As a small retail business, September and October have been fairly steady, much the same as any other year. I am really confident about the run-up to Christmas and have prepared well, starting product development and production in May in order to keep on top of stock issues. Stock issues have been a problem since the beginning of last summer for our industry and haven’t got any better. I feel spending will be up this Christmas despite the rising cost of living, as people haven’t been able to see family and friends and almost everyone I talk to wants to support small, local businesses.”

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