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2019 was the worst year ever for UK retail sales thanks to Brexit

Edmund Heaphy
Finance and news reporter
A shopper crosses Oxford Street, a busy shopping street in London. Photo: Hollie Adams/Getty Images

Overall UK retail sales declined compared with the previous year for the first time ever in 2019, making it the worst year on record for the retail sector, according to the British Retail Consortium (BRC).

Total sales fell by 0.1% last year compared with growth of 1.2% in 2018, the BRC said, blaming Brexit and political uncertainty for a huge drop-off in consumer confidence.

The figures reflect a tough year for retailers — tens of thousands of employees in the sector lost their jobs, while behemoths like Sir Philip Green’s Arcadia Group underwent restructuring and closed stores across the country.

“2019 was the worst year on record and the first year to show an overall decline in retail sales,” said Helen Dickinson, the CEO of the BRC.

“Twice the UK faced the prospect of a no-deal Brexit, as well as political instability that concluded in a December general election — further weakening demand for the festive period.”

Sales increased by 1.9% in December, compared with 0% growth in the same month in 2018, largely because Black Friday, which fell in late November, was included in that month’s data.

Looking at growth in November and December, total sales declined by 0.9%, the BRC said.

Dickinson noted that Black Friday had now overtaken the Christmas period as the biggest shopping week of the year, and that “consumers became both more cautious and more conscientious as they went about their Christmas shopping.”

She said that the confidence in the UK’s trade negotiations with the EU would have a “big impact” on consumer spending in 2020, noting that retailers face “many ongoing challenges”.

Dickinson said it was “essential” that the government makes good on its promise to reform the business rates system.

Retailers currently pay 25% of all business rates, despite accounting for only 5% of the UK economy.