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Retail Sales Witness Steepest Decline Since the Onset of COVID

UK retail sales plummeted by 3.2% in December, marking the largest decline since the lockdowns of early COVID-19 days.
The drop in demand, which extended to food purchases ahead of Christmas, suggested that shoppers had opted to buy earlier during November's Black Friday deals, resulting in the steepest sales fall since January 2021.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) reported a 3.9% decrease in non-food purchases and a 3.1% dip in food sales. Lisa Hooker of PwC observed a cutback in gift-buying, especially in categories like toys and jewelry, though clothing sales fared better.

ONS's Heather Bovill linked the decrease to pre-Christmas discounting and a reduction in gift spending. In a stark contrast, supermarkets experienced strong sales, whereas certain non-food retailers experienced mixed results, with Next reporting solid sales and JD Sports warning of profits due to weaker trading.

Specialty retailer Majestic witnessed record pre-Christmas sales, bolstered by the hospitality sector's recovery, yet consumers are still pressured by high food prices, as noted by Majestic's CEO John Colley. The British Retail Consortium has forecasted a tough year for retail due to ongoing cost-of-living pressures.

The disappointing retail figures, combined with the UK's mild recession risk, underscore the economy's vulnerability. With the economy retracting slightly in the third quarter and displaying mixed results in the following months, economists like Capital Economics' Alex Kerr attribute the December sales drop to early shopping and broader economic strains.

Inflation, while down from its peak in October 2022, inched up to 4% in December, defying predictions of a steady decrease. This has cast doubt on the anticipated interest rate cuts by the Bank of England, potentially postponing any reductions until later in the year. Currently, interest rates stand at 5.25%.

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