Road traffic and ‘social’ spending soars as number of furloughed workers hits new low, figures show
Card spending on travel and eating out hit a new post-pandemic high during the half-term holiday while job adverts in the hospitality sector have surged, according to latest data.
The figures were published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) as part of a regular series of real-time indicators showing the impact of COVID-19 on the economy.
They also showed that the proportion of the UK workforce on furlough in May had hit 7%, or about 1.8 million people – a new low since the data series began in June last year.
Bank of England data, tracking payments by card processors to 100 major retailers, showed “social” spending, which includes travel and eating out, continued recent increases to reach a new high since the start of the pandemic, though still only at about 89% of February 2020 levels.
It was up from 85% a week earlier and just below the level of 91% in March, shortly before the first lockdown.
The level had dipped to as low as 20% in the spring of last year as much of the economy was closed.
Spending classed as “work-related”, including public transport and petrol, was also at its highest since early last year – and nearly a fifth above the February 2020 benchmark.
Overall card purchases in the week ending 3 June were at 102% of the pre-pandemic average in February 2020, up from 95% in the previous week – though it was not the first time spending has topped pre-pandemic levels since lockdowns began to ease in April.
The ONS highlighted that the latest period covered a bank holiday, school half-term and May pay day for many workers.
The figures also provided a snapshot of how the hospitality sector is faring – with data from booking website OpenTable showing the average number of seated diners at restaurants in the week to 7 June at 147% of the same period in 2019, though this was down on the previous week.
At the same time, figures from online jobs search site Adzuna, as of 4 June, showed the recruitment squeeze facing the sector with the volume of adverts for “catering and hospitality” roles at 140% of the February 2020 average, up from 57% in April.
Meanwhile Department for Transport data showed the volume of motor vehicle traffic at the start of this week at 99% of February 2020 levels as the economy gets back into gear.
But footfall data from Springboard showed that, while visits to shopping areas rose last week, it was still at only 85% of pre-lockdown levels.
The figures come as the British Chambers of Commerce predicted a consumer-led rebound for the UK economy this year but warned it would be held back if lockdown restrictions are not eased on 21 June as currently planned.
Food and fashion push retail inflation towards ‘two-year low’
The annual rate of shop price inflation has eased to its lowest level for almost two years, according to an industry reading that credits food and fashion prices.
The British Retail Consortium (BRC)-Nielsen Shop Price Index showed the pace of price increases slowed to 2.5% over the 12 months to February from 2.9% the previous month.
It was the lowest reading since March 2022, the BRC said.
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It was driven by a significant contribution from food, with prices 5% up on a year ago compared with the 6.1% figure registered at the end of January.
The report pointed to price drops for meat, fish and fruit helping fresh food inflation down to 3.4% from an annual rate of 4.9% just four weeks ago.
The BRC credited easing input costs for energy and fertiliser and “fierce” competition for cash-strapped shoppers among retailers.
A separate report by Kantar Worldpanel, which logs supermarket price and sales data, also pointed to an easing in grocery price inflation but it believed food shoppers would be spared a big acceleration in prices ahead.
Its strategic insight director, Tom Steel, said: “Though there’s been lots of discussion about the impact the Red Sea shipping crisis might have on the cost of goods, supermarkets have been pulling out all the stops to keep prices down and help people manage their budgets.
“This month, Morrison’s became the latest retailer to launch a price match scheme with Aldi and Lidl, after Asda made the move in January.
“More generally, we saw promotions accelerate this month after a post-Christmas slowdown. Consumers’ spending on offers increased by 4% in February, worth £586m more than the same month in 2023.”
The BRC pointed out rising costs for things like furniture and electrical goods but extended offers on fashion, to entice spending by customers, during February.
It saw risks ahead to slowing price growth from a series of issues including disruption to shipping in the Red Sea to minimum wage and business rates hikes planned for April.
Helen Dickinson, the BRC’s chief executive, said: “Easing supply chain pressures have begun to feed through to food prices, but significant uncertainties remain as geopolitical tensions rise.
“Prices of non-food goods will be more susceptible to shipping costs, which have risen due to the re-routing of imports around the Cape of Good Hope.
“Domestically, retailers face a major rise to their business rates bills in April, determined by last September’s sky-high inflation rate.
“April’s rates rise should be based on April’s inflation, and the chancellor should use the… budget to make this correction, supporting business investment and helping to drive down prices for consumers.”
Record number of in-store transactions made using contactless
A record 93.4% of in-store card transactions up to £100 were made using contactless in 2023, according to data from Barclays.
The figures are based on Barclays debit card and Barclaycard credit card transactions.
Shoppers made 231 transactions on average, spending an average of £15.69 each time.
This added up to the typical shopper making £3,620 worth of contactless payments over the year.
While contactless is still more popular among younger age groups, the gap between older and younger people using the tech is narrowing, Barclays said.
Last year, the proportion of active users among 85 to 95-year-olds passed 80% for the first time.
And for the third year in a row, the over-65s were the fastest-growing group for contactless usage, Barclays said.
A survey of 2,000 people by Opinium Research for Barclays indicated just 3% of over-75s prefer using mobile payments to physical cards – compared with a quarter (25%) of 18 to 34-year-olds who said they prefer to use their phone.
More than a fifth (22%) of people aged 18 to 34 regularly leave their wallet behind when out shopping in favour of paying with their smartphone, compared with just 1% of over-75s.
Just under a fifth (18%) of people said they struggled to remember their PIN.
For the second year running, the Friday just before Christmas (22 December 2023) was the biggest day for contactless payments, as shoppers picked up last-minute gifts and enjoyed drinks as they clocked off for the holiday.
Karen Johnson, head of retail at Barclays, said: “In 2024, we expect to see a greater shift to payments using mobile wallets, as more bricks-and-mortar businesses integrate the technology into their customer experience.
“Many of our hospitality and leisure clients are finding success by giving customers the ability to order and pay from their table by scanning a QR code.”
‘Real danger’ UK will miss out on economic growth without green plan – CBI economists warn
The UK will “miss out” on economic growth unless it finally comes up with an industrial strategy to green the economy, the leading business group has warned.
As the UK economy has stagnated in recent years, the value of green industries like renewables, eco-friendly heating and energy storage is growing and will help unlock further cash for the UK, according to economists at the Confederation of British Industry (CBI).
They found that while Britain’s GDP growth was stuck at around 0.1% last year, its net zero economy grew by 9%, and attracted billions of pounds in private investment.
It argues private investment is key to unlocking growth.
The UK has committed to reaching net zero by 2050, but the report comes after Labour rowed back on its £28bn green investment pledge, and the Conservatives waged a rhetorical attack on climate policies.
Net zero means almost eliminating greenhouse gas emissions and requires changes to almost every sector, from food to housing, transport to construction.
The businesses implementing these changes – including solar panel installers and green finance advisers – added £74bn in Gross Value Added (GVA) in 2022-23, which is larger than the economy of Wales (£66 billion), according to the CBI Economics report.
But analysts at CBI Economics and thinktank ECIU, which commissioned the report, warned “the strength of future growth is in jeopardy”.
Unless the UK draws up a “Net Zero Investment Plan”, it will lose out to places with larger economies with clear plans, like the US And EU, it said.
Louise Hellem, CBI chief economist, said: “Green growth prizes could deliver a boost of up to £57bn to GDP by 2030, but global competition is heating up.
She added: “If we can’t outspend our international competitors, we need to outsmart them. And the way to do that is really through ambitious policy frameworks that can direct capital into the UK’s green industries.”
Ms Hellem said the UK economy is “well-placed to be a world leader in this space”, given its “unique blend of advanced manufacturing capacity, world leading services industry and energy technical skills”.
“That means that investors do really see opportunities in the UK market.”
‘Real danger’ UK will miss out
Getting to net zero is likely to cost about £10bn a year until 2050, according to the Office for Budget Responsibility, which is roughly equivalent to the annual defence budget, though the majority of the cost is likely to be recouped in savings.
Many technologies that scientists believe are essential to the net zero transition remain extremely expensive, such as hydrogen and carbon capture and storage.
Adam Berman, deputy director of advocacy at industry group Energy UK, said public investment can “de-risk” these technologies and “crowd in” private sector cash, that can then bring down the price.
Jess Ralston from energy thinktank ECIU, said: “The UK is in real danger of missing out on more investment from negative rhetoric and U-turns around net zero, when the EU and US are offering clear plans and are willing to invest themselves.
“Investors want certainty and that comes from long term stable policy – whoever forms the next government will have to remember that, if it wants to see the net zero economy continue to grow.”
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