Shoppers kept their wallets closed last month, leading to retail sales in May plunging at the fastest rate since records began.
Amid “political and economic uncertainty”, sales dropped 2.7% in the four weeks to May 25 compared with a month earlier, according to the BRC-KPMG Retail Sales Monitor.
That makes it the biggest fall in that time period since January 1995, sparking concerns about the future of high street heavyweights in a tough trading environment.
Food sales dropped for the first time since June 2016, and there were also falls in sales of clothing, footwear and outdoor goods compared with a month earlier.
And there was an even bigger fall of 3% last month compared with the same period a year ago in comparable store sales – the steepest drop in a year since December 2008.
Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the British Retail Consortium (BRC), warned the poor figures could lead to further store closures and job losses in a year that has already seen several retailers go bust – including HMV, Debenhams and LK Bennett.
In April, Debenhams announced it is to close as many as 22 stores, putting 1,200 jobs at risk. LK Bennett, a brand frequently worn by the Duchess of Cambridge, will also close a third of its UK stores will close after the brand was sold to a new owner, resulting in around 110 job losses.
Dickinson added: “While May 2018 offered almost unbroken sunshine, topped off by the run up to the World Cup and the marriage of Meghan and Harry, May 2019 delivered political and economic uncertainty.”
Yet in the three months to May, food sales increased 0.8% on a like-for-like basis and 1.9% on a total basis, thanks to stronger trading in March and April.
During the same three-month period, in-store sales of non-food products fell 2.7% on both a total and like-for-like basis – worse than the 12 month total average fall of 2.4%.
Paul Martin, UK head of retail at KPMG, pointed out that growth in online sales was also slower than usual.
He warned: “The extremely low growth online is real cause for concern, especially with almost a third of all non-food sales today being made online.
“This trend has continued to manifest itself over the last year and requires real focus from the retail community.”