‘Beast from the east’ savaged Q1 retail sales

Garden centres take biggest hit but jewellery, computers and clothing see sales slump

The latest industry research has laid bare the full extent of the damage wrought by the March “beast from the east” snowstorm on retail sales.

Figures provided by Retail Excellence Ireland (REI), an industry lobby group, show that despite the improving economy, like-for-like sales were down 1.2 per cent in March, and a fifth of 1 per cent overall in the first quarter.

The decline comes despite a comparative boost delivered to first-quarter sales by the fact that Easter fell in March this year, and not in April as in 2017.

REI's chief executive, David Fitzsimons, said the inclement weather negatively impacted most on the 19 retail sectors examined in its first-quarter Productivity Review, which it produces in association with research firm GfK and Grant Thornton. It collates electronic sales data directly from the tills of retailers.

“What is very clear is that the Irish retail industry is in a significant state of flux,” he said.

The worst performing sectors were garden centres, where sales were down 15.8 per cent in the quarter, compared with the first three months of 2017, and IT and computing products, whose 17 per cent decline would have been even worse only for the Easter anomaly.

In March, garden centre sales were down almost by a quarter, on account of the snowstorm.

Grocery sales

Among the best performing sectors were health stores (up 4 per cent), small home appliances (up 6 per cent) and furniture and flooring (up 3.6 per cent over the quarter).

Grocery sales were up 1.1 per cent, which was “spurred on by Easter trading”, said Mr Fitzsimons. The rate of monthly growth in the sector actually increased in March, which may well have been partly due to bread sales.

Jewellery sales were down for all three months in the quarter, as were lingerie, ladieswear and menswear sales.

Electronic brown goods sales were up 4 per cent by value over the quarter.

"This is the cumulative effect of a yoyo three months," said Nick Simon of GfK.

IT sales, including computers and tablets, have dropped off hugely. In volume terms they were down 11 per cent, and 17 per cent in value terms, indicating price cuts. GfK said IT sales painted a “bleak picture” for the sector.

Mark Paul

Mark Paul

Mark Paul is Business Affairs Correspondent of The Irish Times. He also writes the Caveat column