AS retailers prepare for the key festive trading season getting under way in earnest, many will be doing so with a sense of trepidation.

It is apparent that years of austerity and poor economic growth in the UK have really come home to roost, against a developing backdrop of extremely fragile confidence among households. And last year’s Brexit vote, as well as renewing the fall in real pay that has characterised the Conservatives’ seven years in Government by sending the pound tumbling and inflation surging, is weighing heavily on what was already gloomy sentiment.

This week’s October sales figures from the Scottish Retail Consortium continued a familiar pattern.

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The value of food sales again showed what, on the face of it, looked like a solid enough year-on-year rise. Scottish food sales value in October was, according to the SRC figures, up by 4.9 per cent on the same month of last year.

However, this increase is far less solid than it looks.

Much of the rise is the result of rampant food price inflation, with the pound’s post-Brexit vote woes having pushed up the cost of imports sharply. The part played by inflation in rising food sales value was flagged by the SRC.

And the fact of the matter, whether the Brexiters like it or not, is that Britain has to import a lot of its food. EU exit will not result in changed weather systems that enable the growing of coffee, pineapples, bananas, oranges, or rice, for example.

The other important point to note, given the inflation impact, is that a rise in the value of food sales should not be viewed as a sign of consumer confidence.

Rather, it highlights additional pressure on household finances from consumers having to pay a lot more for their essential groceries. This means many people have less disposable income to spend on other things. Many others will not even be able to balance the household books.

And this sorry situation is clear in the SRC figures.

The SRC’s survey shows a continuing year-on-year tumble in the value of non-food sales – the more discretionary element of retail spending. The value of non-food sales in October was down 5.2 per cent on the same month of last year.

Clothing and electrical retailers encountered particularly tough trading conditions. Demand for clothing may not have been helped by unseasonably mild weather, which tends to reduce consumer appetite for autumn and winter ranges.

However, non-food sales have been consistently weak in recent times, so weather is only a fleeting influence.

The problem, as even the Conservatives surely must realise at least privately by now, arises from the dire economic fundamentals.

It is all a matter of fairly simple arithmetic, taking into account the negative effects of austerity and Brexit.

Data published by the Office for National Statistics on Wednesday showed households in Great Britain are being weighed down by a continuing fall in real earnings, amid weak nominal pay settlements and the surge in inflation caused by the pound’s post-Brexit vote woes.

Average weekly earnings for employees in Great Britain, excluding bonuses, were in the three months to September down by 0.5 per cent on the same period of 2016. This marked an acceleration in the pace of decline from the 0.4 per cent year-on-year drop in the three months to August.

These are tough times indeed for the retail sector in Scotland and the UK as a whole.

A survey published this week by accountancy firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, compiled by the Local Data Company, shows Scotland suffered the largest net number of store closures by multiple retailers out of 11 nations and regions in Great Britain in the first half of this year.

There was some consolation that the net closures figure – arrived at by subtracting openings from losses of outlets – was at 42 in the first half down from 87 in the opening six months of last year.

But the miserable reality is that closures continued to outweigh openings significantly. And this is the case for the vast bulk of Great Britain, with store openings exceeding closures only in the East Midlands and in the Yorkshire and the Humber region in the first half, according to the PwC survey covering Great Britain’s top 500 town centres.

There is no doubt a structural element at play here, with the growth of online retailing. And the SRC, from a Scottish perspective, flagged its view that high business rates were playing their part.

But the fundamental problem is there is a lack of money around.

This should come as no surprise to the Conservatives, given their grinding and entirely counter-productive austerity programme since 2010.

However, just because it should not come as a surprise does not mean that it will not cause some Tories to be baffled, maybe even genuinely. After all, far too many of them seem out of touch with what ordinary people have been enduring since the global financial sector triggered deep recession nearly a decade ago.

The signs are all there. Just look at the continuing prevalence of food banks, nearly a decade after the crash, as the state fails to provide adequately for those in need. So the Tories have no excuse for being surprised.

Things are already in grim shape, and the recent boom in unsecured consumer debt, including credit-card lending and various forms of car finance, has prompted warnings from the Bank of England. It is not immediately clear some high street banks share this concern, and this is a worry.

Earlier this month, against the backdrop of high inflation caused by Brexit, the Bank of England raised UK base rates by a quarter-point from their record low of 0.25 per cent. This means bigger monthly mortgage payments for many and higher interest rates on unsecured debt.

The Tory austerity programme is unrelenting, even if they are putting a different spin on it these days. And economic growth has slowed sharply amid the post-Brexit vote chaos, as a result not just of the renewed fall in real wages but also huge uncertainty for consumers and businesses over what on earth happens next.

Given the UK’s miserable economic performance, it is highly unlikely Chancellor Philip Hammond will be able to pull any rabbits out of the hat in next week’s Budget in terms of giveaways that might improve consumer sentiment or reduce worries, even if he wants to do so.

Things are tough indeed for the retail sector, as it gears up for the crucial festive period.

And the problem is there is absolutely no sign of any catalyst for improvement in the overall financial health of households.

Rather, as Conservative austerity and the Brexit shambles continue, things look as if they might well get even worse.