Almost half the adults in Great Britain are cutting back on the amount of food they buy as the cost of living crisis forces them to trim their weekly supermarket shop, the latest official figures have shown.
In stark evidence on the effect of rising inflation on spending patterns, the Office for National Statistics said 44% of adults surveyed last month said they were buying less food – up from 18% at the start of the year.
The ONS said the decrease in food shopping was having a marked impact on the UK’s shops and online sellers – with smaller grocery bills the main factor behind a 0.5% drop in retail sales in Great Britain last month.
However, department stores and household goods outlets also reported a reluctance of consumers to spend as a result of a higher cost of living.
The UK’s statistics agency said the 1.6% decrease in the volume of food sales appeared to be linked to inflation, which as measured by the consumer prices index hit a 40-year-high of 9.1% in May.
The British Retail Consortium, which represents retailers, said shoppers were spurning premium brands for cheaper options as they sought to make stretched household budgets go further.
Helen Dickinson, the BRC’s chief executive, said: “Households reined in spending as the cost of living crunch continued to squeeze consumer demand. Many customers are buying down, particularly with food, choosing value range items where they might previously have bought premium goods.
“High-value items such as furniture and white goods were also impacted as shoppers reconsidered major purchases during this difficult time.”
A year ago, annual inflation was running at 2.1%, just above the government’s 2% target but has steadily increased over the past 12 months. The Bank of England forecasts a peak of above 11% later this year.
Retail sales growth in April was also revised down from an original estimate of 1.4% to 0.4%, while in the three months to May – a better guide to the underlying trend than a single month’s figures – spending was down by 1.3% on the previous quarter.
The volume of sales in the quarter ending in May was 2.8% lower than in the same period of 2021, although still up on pre-pandemic levels.
The ONS said the fall in retail sales was more marked when spending by motorists on petrol and diesel was excluded. On this basis, retail sales were down by 0.7% on the month and 1.5% over the quarter.
Heather Bovill, the ONS deputy director for surveys and economic indicators, said: “Retail sales fell in May driven by a decline in food sales. Feedback from supermarkets suggested customers were spending less on their food shop because of the rising cost of living.
“More workers returning to the office may have contributed to increased fuel sales this month, while shoppers buying outfits for summer holidays helped boost clothing sales.
“These rises were offset by falls for household goods and department stores, with retailers in these areas reporting consumer reluctance to spend due to affordability worries and higher prices.”
Lynda Petherick, the retail lead at Accenture in the UK and Ireland, said the fall in sales would come as no surprise to a retail sector grappling with rapidly rising costs and pressure to keep prices low for struggling households.
“Inflation remains a key issue for retail businesses, who are having to grapple with growing supply chain costs, as well as keeping their stores afloat and staff well compensated. For consumers, rising costs for staple goods mean many don’t have excess money to spend on discretionary items,” Petherick said.