July retail sales in Britain higher than expected, led by surge in demand for food

A shopper in a London supermarket on April 11, 2017. Food sales in July rose 1.5 per cent, rebounding from a 1.1 per cent drop the previous month.
A shopper in a London supermarket on April 11, 2017. Food sales in July rose 1.5 per cent, rebounding from a 1.1 per cent drop the previous month.PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON (BLOOMBERG) - Retail sales in Britain rose more than forecast in July, driven by the biggest jump in purchases of food in almost two years.

The volume of goods sold increased 0.3 per cent, just ahead of the 0.2 per cent gain predicted by economists, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) said Thursday (Aug 17). The increase in June was revised down to 0.3 per cent from 0.6 per cent, though the total for the second quarter was unrevised.

Sales in July were largely driven by food, and figures covering the past three months show how pressure on consumers from faster inflation is weighing on retailers. Annual growth in the quarter through July was 1.8 per cent, the weakest in almost four years. Price increases have accelerated in the past year largely because of the pound's decline since the Brexit vote.

The retail report follows data on Wednesday showing that real incomes fell 0.5 per cent in the second quarter, as wages failed to keep pace with inflation. Consumer confidence has weakened this year and shoppers are already changing their spending habits to save money. More than half of the households in a Nielsen survey, published Thursday, said they are making cost-cutting efforts - the highest proportion in two years.

According to the report, 30 per cent of households said they switched to cheaper grocery brands to save money, the most popular method of thrift ahead of saving on gas and electricity and spending less on new clothes.

The ONS data showed that demand at supermarkets led the retail gain in July, with food sales up 1.5 per cent, rebounding from a 1.1 per cent drop the previous month. Almost every other category of sales saw a decline.

The strain on household budgets is likely to continue for some months yet, according to the Bank of England, although things may not get much worse as inflation may be near its peak. Still, economic growth is forecast to cool this year and next.

"The worst is probably over for the British consumer," Mr Dan Hanson and Mr Jamie Murray, economists at Bloomberg Intelligence, wrote in a note on Thursday. "Rising inflation made for a torrid start to 2017, but the shock is already fading. While things are looking brighter for households, uncertainty is likely to mean companies remain cautious."