May is traditionally celebrated as the month of rebirth, named after Maia, the Roman goddess of springtime, warmth and increase.
A timely derivation it seems, after a first glance over today’s ONS retail sales figures for May. Spring well and truly sprung during the month, as fashion, footwear and textile retailers notched up a record sales rise of 9.2 per cent and volumes at “predominantly non-food stores” climbed 3.9 per cent, the biggest increase since 1991.
Fashion sales – along with food – contributed to unprecedented figures when sales unexpectedly soared at their fastest monthly rate since ONS records began in 1986.
No, your eyes do not deceive you.
After an appalling March and April, when clothing and footwear sales dropped to their worst level for at least eight years, according to the BRC, the warmest May on record has provided a fillip to dragging fashion sales.
Naturally, this is welcome news, but it is likely to be short-lived. Any belated May Day celebrations this morning will have been underwhelming. In the coming months, retailers are more likely to hear the words May and day used with SOS connotations.
Aside from the superficial lift to sales granted by the warmer weather, today’s ONS figures will have bolstered market expectations that interest rates will rise before they fall, further compounding consumers’ mortgage woes and curtailing high street spending.
Frustratingly, the figures also fly in the face of anecdotal evidence from the high street itself and, no doubt, much will be said about the role of official figures in painting an overly rosy picture.
Added to that is last night’s bleak comments from Bank of England governor Mervyn King, who this week had to write his second letter to the Chancellor this year, explaining why inflation had again risen above 3 per cent.
The very real squeeze on workers take-home pay will “arguably be an even more significant restraint on consumer spending this year than the credit crunch”, warned King.
Lower demand on the high street will go hand in hand with lower demand in the property market, he added. Debt-burdened consumers will continue to be squeezed.
And if, as King said, the coming months present the biggest challenge for the economy in two decades there will be no change to negative consumer sentiment this year.
So, as the nights begin to draw in again after this Saturday’s summer solstice, retailers can make hay while the sun shines, but undoubtedly face a winter of discontent.