Grim retail sales suggest possible recession for Britain

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Shoppers walk past shops on Regent Street on the final weekday before Christmas in London on December 22, 2023. Britain’s economy unexpectedly shrank in the third quarter and flatlined in the previous three months, official data showed Friday, raising fears of a recession before an election due next year. (Photo by HENRY NICHOLLS / AFP) (Photo by HENRY NICHOLLS/AFP via Getty Images)

Henry Nicholls | Afp | Getty Images

U.K. retail sales dropped significantly more than expected in December, in a sign that the economy may have entered a shallow recession in the second half of 2023.

The Office for National Statistics said sales volumes fell by 3.2% during the key trading month, after a 1.4% rise in November. Economists polled by Reuters had expected a fall of just 0.5%.

December marked the largest monthly decline since January 2021, when strict pandemic lockdown measures dampened demand. The ONS said people appeared to have done their Christmas shopping earlier than in previous years.

Volumes were 0.9% lower in the three months to December 2023, compared with the previous quarter.

It comes after U.K. gross domestic product for the third quarter was revised down to a 0.1% contraction, from a prior reading of no growth.

“Today’s release would subtract around 0.15 percentage points from real GDP growth in December, which increases the chances the economy may have ended 2023 in the mildest of mild recessions,” said Alex Kerr, assistant economist at Capital Economics.

Trade body British Retail Consortium said that the figures “capped a difficult year for retailers” and showed Black Friday sales ate into Christmas spending.