The distinction between nominal and real values in one of the ‘threshold concepts’ in economics. These are concepts that are fundamental to a discipline and which occur again and again. The distinction between nominal and real values is particularly important when interpreting and analysing data. We show its importance here when analysing the latest retail sales data from the Office for National Statistics.
Retail sales relate to spending on items such as food, clothing, footwear, and household goods (see). They involve sales by retailers directly to end consumers whether in store or online. 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 93 per cent of turnover in the sector.
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 September 2023 showed a 0.9 per cent volume fall in the volume of retail sales, following a 0.4 per cent rise in August. In value terms, September saw a 0.2 per cent fall in retail sales following a 0.9 per cent rise in August. Monthly changes can be quite volatile, even after seasonal adjustment, and sensitive to peculiar factors. For example, the unusually warm weather this September helped to depress expenditure on clothes. It is, therefore, sensible to take a longer-term view when looking for clearer patterns in spending behaviour.
Chart 1 plots the value and volume of retail sales in Great Britain since 1996. (Click here for a PowerPoint of this and the other two charts). In value terms, retail sales spending increased by 165 per cent, whereas in volume terms, spending increased by 73 per cent. This difference is expected in the presence of rising prices, since nominal growth, as we have just noted, reflects both price and volume changes. The chart is notable for capturing 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 16 per cent.
The second of the two periods is the decline in the volume of retail sales from 2021. To help illustrate this more clearly, Chart 2 zooms in on retail sales over the past five years or so. We can see a significant divergence between the volume and value of retail sales. Between April 2021 and September 2023, the volume of retail sales fell by 11%. In contrast, the value of retail sales increased by 8.4%. The impact of the inflationary shock and the consequent cost-of-living crisis that emerged from 2021 is therefore demonstrated starkly by the chart, not least the severe drag that it has had on the volume of retail spending. This has meant that the aggregate volume of retail sales in September 2023 was only back to the levels of mid-2018.
Finally, Chart 3 shows the patterns in the volumes of retailing by four categories since 2018: specifically, food stores, predominantly non-food stores, non-store retail, and automotive fuel. The largest fall in the volume of retail sales has been experienced by non-store retailing – largely online retailing. From its peak in December 2021, non-store retail sales decreased by 18% up to September 2023. While this needs to be set in the context of the volume of non-store retail purchases being 15% higher than in February 2020 before the pandemic lockdowns were introduced, it is nonetheless indicative of the pressures facing online retailers.
Importantly, the final chart shows that the pressures in retailing are widespread. Spending volumes on automotive fuels, and in food and non-food stores are all below 2019 levels. The likelihood is that these pressures will persist for some time to come. This inevitably has potential implications for retailers and, of course, for those that work in the sector.
- Warm weather leads to shock drop in shop sales
- UK retail sector may be in recession before key Christmas sales season
- ‘Concern’ for retailers ahead of Christmas as sales and shopper confidence fall
BBC News, Tom Espiner (20/10/23)
The Guardian, Richard Partington, Mark Sweney and Sarah Butler (20/10/23)
Sky News, James Sillars (20/10/23)
- Retail sales, Great Britain: September 2023
Office for National Statistics (20/10/23)
- Retail Sales Index
Office for National Statistics (20/10/23)
- Why does an increase in the value of retail sales not necessarily mean that their volume has increased?
- In the presence of deflation, which will be higher: nominal or real growth rates?
- Discuss the factors that could explain the patterns in the volume of spending observed in the different categories of retail sales in Chart 3.
- Discuss what types of retail products might be more or less sensitive to the macroeconomic environment.
- 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.
- What do you understand by the concepts of ‘consumer confidence’ and ‘economic uncertainty’? How might these affect the volume of retail spending?
- Discuss the proposition that the retail sales data cast doubt on whether people are ‘forward-looking consumption smoothers’.