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However loud the pounding of rain on the roof, climate change cannot be judged by the weight of a single deluge. So one month’s worth of retail sales figures, particularly without the contribution of America’s largest retailer Wal-Mart, is of only limited use. A wet first half, followed by a dry fortnight, added the weather’s own twist to shoppers’ behaviour in June. The comparison against last year is skewed by the lack of government stimulus cheques landing in post boxes this summer. But it is possible to divine some broader retail trends in the wind.
On the plus side, conditions could actually be worse. Overall retail sales dropped 4.3 per cent year on year, according to consultancy Retail Metrics, less than had been feared. Retailers have also managed inventory levels better this year, resulting in fewer markdowns and improving margins.
Yet high unemployment and stagnant wages mean consumers are still trading down to discount retailers. Cut price clothes stores Ross and TJ Maxx were among the few to expand sales. Discretionary spending is out, with department stores still suffering. Even with a burst of discounting, Saks’ sales for May and June combined were still down 15 per cent on last year.
Indeed, the big risk for retailers is that expectations for ever lower prices become entrenched. Abercrombie & Fitch, which resists price competition, saw sales drop by a third in June, while well-timed promotions pushed turnover up 12 per cent at Aeropostale. By September, stores will be lapping the declines of last year, so sales should at least level off. But better inventory management also means fewer clearance bargains to tempt shoppers through the doors. If the back-to-school season fails to generate interest, more storm-proofing will be in order.