UK shoppers seek bargains, employers hunt staff as Brexit bites

09 May, 2017 8:20 am

LONDON – British shoppers are increasingly seeking bargains to offset rising inflation and employers are finding it harder to recruit migrant workers, according to surveys published on Tuesday which reflected the impact of last year’s Brexit vote.

Total retail sales showed their strongest year-on-year growth in six years in April, but the jump largely reflected the timing of the Easter holiday which fell in March last year but in April in 2017, the British Retail Consortium said.

Rising prices for goods in shops – pushed up in many cases by a fall in the value of the pound – were also a factor behind the 6.3 percent increase in the value of sales, it said.

“Looking to the longer-term signs of a slowdown, the outlook isn’t as rosy,” BRC Chief Executive Helen Dickinson said.

Consumers were focussing increasingly on saving money by buying cheaper, own-label brands from supermarkets and were being more cautious about non-food spending, she said.

On a like-for-like basis – which excludes new store openings – sales were up by 5.6 percent in April compared with the same month last year, the BRC said.

Britain’s economy initially held up well to the shock of last June’s referendum decision to leave the EU.

But inflation is rising quickly and wage growth has weakened, raising questions about how long consumers can continue to drive growth going forward.

In the first three months of this year, the economy expanded at half the pace of the last quarter of 2016, an awkward economic backdrop for Prime Minister Theresa May who nonetheless seems headed for victory in a national election on June 8.

Credit card firm Barclaycard painted a similar picture to BRC, saying sales were up an annual 5.5 percent in April, but two thirds of respondents in its survey said they were focussing on value for money. It reported a 16.6 percent rise in spending in discount stores.

Barclaycard said a rise of 11.4 percent of spending on essential items – the strongest growth seen since Barclaycard began compiling data in 2012 – was partly due to Easter and by spending on fuel, which jumped 14.7 percent.

Separately on Tuesday, the Recruitment and Employment Confederation (REC) said employers saw the sharpest fall in the availability of workers to fill their vacancies in 16 months.

Recruitment companies reported a drop in the number of European Union nationals available to work in sectors such as food manufacturing and healthcare, REC said.

“The weakening pound and lack of clarity about future immigration rules is putting off some EU nationals from taking up roles in the UK,” REC Chief Executive Kevin Green said.

Official data published in February showed that a steady rise in the number of EU migrants working in Britain stalled at the end of 2016, raising concerns among employers that they would struggle to fill vacancies.

The REC survey also showed the slowest increase in permanent placements by recruitment firms in seven months and growth in starting wages edged down to a four month low. By contrast hirings and pay for temporary workers picked up speed. -Reuters

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