United Kingdom retail sales fall sharply in December but fourth quarter still solid

United Kingdom retail sales fell the most in more than four and a half years last month, the county's official statistics office said Friday, as consumers pulled back on spending amid rising inflation and broader economic uncertainty.

The Office for National Statistics said retail sales, including auto fuel, declined 1.9% in December compared to a month ago, far worse than the 0.1% decrease expected by analysts and following a 0.2% month-on-month rise in November.

The slowdown was driven mostly by a fall in sales in household goods as well as clothes and shoes.

Alan Clarke at Scotiabank described the figures as "terrible".

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Both food and non-food store sales slid 0.5% and 2.6%, respectively.

Retailers, including Sainsbury's, Majestic Wines, Morrisons, Aldi and others have all reported an increase in sales, with the British Retail Consortium (BRC) reporting United Kingdom retail sales increased by 1.0% on a like-for-like basis from December 2015.

'There were some notably strong figures from smaller retailers, in particular butchers, who reported a significant boost in sales in the run-up to Christmas'.

But the pound has taken a whack on these December numbers - falling half a cent versus the dollar - because they fit in with the narrative that many commentators have built around the United Kingdom economy - which is that a slowdown in household and consumer spending is bound to happen as inflation starts to overtake growth in average earnings again.

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Possible explanations include price increases and consumers scaling back purchases after taking advantage of Black Friday discounts the previous month, statisticians said.

Retailers are expected to start passing the impact of sterling's devaluation on to consumers in the coming months as their currency hedging comes to an end.

But retail sales growth in the fourth quarter overall stood at 1.2 percent, enough to make a 0.1 percentage point contribution to economic growth over the period.

Clothing and footwear sales declined 3.7 per cent, the most in a year, and department stores saw sales decline 1.2 per cent. Food sales declined 0.5 per cent and sales of auto fuel fell 1.1 per cent. Excluding fuel prices, shop goods edged up 0.1%, the first increase since June 2014.

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Stats based on data collected from Salmon's Peak Trading Operations Centre and a range of Salmon's leading retail clients during the period 18th November - 31st December 2016.