Tag: Confidence and spending

In the third of our series on the distinction between nominal and real values we show its importance when analysing retail sales data. In the UK, such data are available from the Office for National Statistics. This blog revisits an earlier one, Nominal and real retail sales figures: interpreting the data, written in October 2023. We find that inflation-adjusted retail sales data reveal some stark patterns in the sector. They help contextualise some of the challenges faced by high streets up and down the UK.

The Retail Sales Index

Retail sales relate to spending on items such as food, clothing, footwear and household goods. They involve sales by retailers directly to final consumers, whether in store or online. Spending on services such as holidays, air fares and train tickets, insurance, banking, hotels and restaurants are not included, as are sales of motor vehicles. The Retail Sales Index for Great Britain is based on a monthly survey of around 5000 retailers across England, Scotland and Wales and is thought to capture around three-quarters of turnover in the retail industry.

Estimates of retail sales are published in index form. There are two indices published by the ONS: a value and volume measure. The value index reflects the total turnover of business, while the volume index adjusts the value index for price changes. Hence, the value estimates are nominal, while the volume estimates are real. The key point here is that the nominal estimates reflect both price and volume changes, whereas the real estimates adjust for price movements to capture only volume changes.

The headline ONS figures for May 2024 showed a rise by 2.9 per cent in the volume of retail sales, following a 1.8 per cent fall in April. In value terms, May saw a 3.3 per cent rise in retail sales following a 2.3 fall in March. Monthly changes can be quite volatile, even after seasonal adjustment, and sensitive to peculiar factors. For example, the poor weather in April 2024 helped to depress retail spending. It is, therefore, sensible to take a longer-term view when looking for clearer patterns in spending behaviour.

Growth of retail sales

Chart 1 plots the monthly value and volume of retail sales in Great Britain since 1996. (Click here to download a PowerPoint of the chart). In value terms, monthly spending in the retail sector has increased by 169 per cent since January 1996, whereas in volume terms, spending has increased by 77 per cent. Another way of thinking about this is in terms of the average annual rate of increase. This shows that the value of spending has risen at an annual rate of 3.5 per cent while the volume of spending has risen at an annual rate of 2.0 per cent. This difference is to be expected in the presence of rising prices, since nominal growth, as we have just noted, reflects both price and volume changes.

Chart 1 helps to identify two periods where the volume of retail spending ceased to grow. The first of these is following the global financial crisis of the late 2000s. The period from 2008 to 2013 saw the volume of retail sales stagnate and flatline, with a recovery in volumes only really starting to take hold in 2014. Yet in nominal terms retail sales grew by around 14 per cent.

The second of the two periods is from 2021. Chart 2 helps to demonstrates the extent of the struggles of the retail sector in this period. It shows a significant divergence between the volume and value of retail sales. Indeed, between April 2021 and October 2023, while the value of retail sales increased by 8.0 per cent the volume of retail sales fell by 11.0 per cent.

The recent value-volume divergence reflects the inflation shock that began to emerge in 2021. This saw consumer prices, as measured by the Consumer Prices Index (CPI), rise across 2022 and 2023 by 9.1 per cent and 7.3 per cent respectively, with the annual rate of CPI inflation hitting 11.1 per cent in October 2022. Hence, while inflation was a drag on the volume of spending it nonetheless meant that the value of spending continued to rise. Once more this demonstrates why understanding the distinction between nominal and real is important. (Click here to download a PowerPoint of the chart).

To illustrate the longer-term trend in the volume of retail spending alongside its volatility, Chart 3 plots yearly retail sales volumes and also their percentage change on the previous year.

The chart nicely captures the prolonged halt to retail sales growth following the global financial crisis, the fluctuations caused by COVID and then the sharp falls in the volume of retail spending in 2022 and 2023 as the effects of the inflationary shock on peoples’ finances bit sharply. This cost-of-living crisis significantly affected many people’s disposable income. (Click here to download a PowerPoint of the chart).

Categories of retail sales

We conclude by considering categories of retail spending. Chart 4 shows volumes of retail sales by four broad categories since 1996. (Click here to download a PowerPoint of the chart). These are food stores, predominantly non-food stores, non-store retail and automotive fuel (i.e. sales of petrol and diesel “at the pumps”).

Whilst all categories have seen an increase in their spending volumes over the period as a whole, there are stark differences in this rate of growth. Perhaps not surprisingly, the most rapid growth is in non-store retail. This includes online retailing, as well as market stalls and catalogues.

The volume of retail spending in the non-store sector has grown at an average annual rate over this period of 6.3 per cent, compared with 2.6 per cent for non-food stores, 1.2 per cent for predominantly food stores and 1.0 per cent for automotive fuels. The growth of non-store retail has been even more rapid since 2010, when the average annual rate of growth in the volume of purchases has been 10.2 per cent, compared to 1.8 per cent for non-food stores, 1.0 per cent for automotive fuels and zero growth for food stores.

If we focus on the most recent patterns in the categories of retail sales, we see that the monthly volume of spending in all categories except non-store retail is now lower than the average in 2019. Specifically, when compared to 2019 levels, the volume of spending in non-food stores in May 2024 was 2.6 per cent lower, while that in food stores was 4.4 per cent lower, and the volume of spending on automotive fuels was 10.8 per cent lower. In contrast, spending in non-store retail was 21.2 per cent higher. Yet this is not to imply that this sector has been immune to the pressures faced by their high-street counterparts. Although it is difficult to disentangle fully the effects of the pandemic and lockdowns on non-store retail sales data, the downward trajectory in the volume of retail sales in the sector that occurred as the economy ‘reopened’ in 2021 and 2022 continued into 2023 when purchases fell by 3.5 per cent.

Final thoughts

The retail sector is an incredibly important part of the economy. A recent research briefing from the House of Commons Library reports that there were 2.7 million jobs in the UK retail sector in 2022, equivalent to 8.6 per cent of the country’s jobs with 314 040 retail businesses as of January 2023. Yet the importance of the retail sector cannot be captured by these statistics alone. Some would argue that the very fabric and wellbeing of our towns and cities is affected by the wellbeing of the sector and, importantly, by structural changes that affect how people interact with retail.


Research Briefing

Statistical bulletin



  1. Which of the following is/are not counted in the UK retail sales data: (i) purchase of furniture from a department store; (ii) weekly grocery shop online; (iii) a stay at a hotel on holiday; (iv) a meal at your favourite café or restaurant?
  2. Why does an increase in the value of retail sales not necessarily mean that their volume has increased?
  3. In the presence of deflation, which will be higher: nominal or real growth rates?
  4. Discuss the factors that could explain the patterns in the volume of spending observed in the different categories of retail sales in Chart 4.
  5. Discuss what types of retail products might be more or less sensitive to changes in the macroeconomic environment.
  6. Conduct a survey of recent media reports to prepare a briefing discussing examples of retailers who have struggled or thrived in the recent economic environment.
  7. What do you understand by the concepts of ‘consumer confidence’ and ‘economic uncertainty’? How might these affect the volume of retail spending?
  8. Discuss the proposition that the retail sales data cast doubt on whether people are ‘forward-looking consumption smoothers’.

Confidence figures suggest that sentiment weakened across several sectors in June with significant falls recorded in retail and construction. This is consistent with the monthly GDP estimates from the ONS which suggest that output declined in March and April by 0.1 per cent and 0.4 per cent respectively. The confidence data point to further weakness in growth down the line. Furthermore, it poses the risk of fuelling a snowball effect with low growth being amplified and sustained by low confidence.

Chart 1 shows the confidence balances reported by the European Commission each month since 2007. It highlights the collapse in confidence across all sectors around the time of the financial crisis before a strong and sustained recovery in the 2010s. However, in recent months confidence indicators have eased significantly, undoubtedly reflecting the heightened uncertainty around Brexit. (Click here to download a PowerPoint copy of the chart.)

Between June 2016 and June 2019, the confidence balances have fallen by at least 8 percentage points. In the case of the construction the fall is 14 points while in the important service sector, which contributes about 80 per cent of the economy’s national income, the fall is as much as 15 points.

Changes in confidence are thought, in part, to reflect levels of economic uncertainty. In particular, they may reflect the confidence around future income streams with greater uncertainty pulling confidence down. This is pertinent because of the uncertainty around the UK’s future trading relationships following the 2016 referendum which saw the UK vote to leave the EU. In simple terms, uncertainty reduces the confidence people and businesses have when forming expectations of what they can expect to earn in the future.

Greater uncertainty and, hence, lower confidence tend to make people and businesses more prudent. The caution that comes from prudence counteracts the inherent tendency of many of us to be impatient. This impatience generates an impulse to spend now. On the other hand, prudence encourages us to take actions to increase net worth, i.e. wealth. This may be through reducing our exposure to debt, perhaps by looking to repay debts or choosing to borrow smaller sums than we may have otherwise done. Another option may be to increase levels of saving. In either case, the effect of greater prudence is the postponement of spending. Therefore, in times of high uncertainty, like those of present, people and businesses would be expected to want to have greater financial resilience because they are less confident about what the future holds.

To this point, the saving ratio – the proportion of disposable income saved by households – has remained historically low. In Q1 2019 the saving ratio was 4.4 per cent, well below its 60-year average of 8.5 per cent. This appears to contradict the idea that households respond to uncertainty by increasing saving. However, at least in part, the squeeze seen over many years following the financial crisis on real earnings, i.e. inflation-adjusted earnings, restricted the ability of many to increase saving. With real earnings having risen again over the past year or so, though still below pre-crisis levels, households may have taken this opportunity to use earnings growth to support spending levels rather than, as we shall see shortly, looking to borrow.

Another way in which the desire for greater financial resilience can affect behaviour is through the appetite to borrow. In the case of consumers, it could reduce borrowing for consumption, while in the case of firms it could reduce borrowing for investment, i.e. spending on capital, such as that on buildings and machinery. The reduced appetite for borrowing may also be mirrored by a tightening of credit conditions by financial institutions if they perceive lending to be riskier or want to increase their own financial capacity to absorb future shocks.

Chart 2 shows consumer confidence alongside the annual rate of growth of consumer credit (net of repayments) to individuals by banks and building societies. Consumer credit is borrowing by individuals to finance current expenditure on goods and services and it comprises borrowing through credit cards, overdraft facilities and other loans and advances, for example those financing the purchase of cars or other large ticket items. (Click here to download a PowerPoint copy of the chart.)

The chart allows us to view the confidence-borrowing relationship for the past 25 years or so. It suggests a fairly close association between consumer confidence and consumer credit growth. Whether changes in confidence occur ahead of changes in borrowing is debatable. However, the easing of confidence following the outcome of the EU referendum vote in June 2016 does appear to have led subsequently to an easing in the annual growth of consumer credit. From its peak of 10.9 per cent in the autumn of 2016, the annual growth rate of consumer credit dropped to 5.6 per cent in May 2019.

The easing of credit growth helps put something of a brake on consumer spending. It is, however, unlikely to affect all categories of spending equally. Indeed, the ONS figures for May on retail sales shows a mixed picture for the retail sector. Across the sector as a whole, the 3 month-on-3 month growth rate for the volume of purchases stood at 1.6 per cent, having fallen as low as 0.1 percent in December of last year. However, the 3 month-on-3 month growth rate for spending volumes in department stores, which might be especially vulnerable to a slowdown in credit, fell for the ninth consecutive month.

Going forward, the falls in confidence might be expected to lead to further efforts by the household sector, as well as by businesses, to ensure their financial resilience. The vulnerability of households, despite the slowdown in credit growth, so soon after the financial crisis poses a risk for a hard landing for the sector. After falls in national output in March and April, the next monthly GDP figures to be released on 10 July will be eagerly anticipated.



  1. Which of the following statements is likely to be more accurate: (a) Confidence drives economic activity or (b) Economic activity drives confidence?
  2. Explain the difference between confidence as a source of economic volatility as compared to an amplifier of volatility?
  3. Discuss the links between confidence, economic uncertainty and financial resilience.
  4. Discuss the ways in which people and businesses could improve their financial resilience to adverse shocks.
  5. What are the potential dangers to the economy of various sectors being financially distressed or exposed?