SCOTTISH retailers endured a “bleak midwinter” with a year-on-year fall in sales over the key two-month festive trading period, a survey has revealed.

The Scottish Retail Consortium’s latest monitor shows that, taking November and December together, the total value of sales was down by 0.9 per cent on the same period of 2018. This is a steeper drop than respective three-month and 12-month average year-on-year declines of 0.4% and 0.1%, the SRC notes.

Adjusting for shop-price deflation, the year-on-year decline in sales volumes over November and December was 0.5%.

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SRC director David Lonsdale said: “It was more bleak midwinter than festive frolics for Scottish retailers as shop takings slipped during the critical Christmas trading period. Over the crucial two-month period leading up to Christmas, real-terms sales dipped by 0.5% ¬- the second successive year of negative figures.”

Total retail sales value in the December trading period was up by 0.4% on a year earlier. In December 2018, sales value had been down by 1% on the same month of 2017.

The year-on-year rise in total retail sales value in last month’s trading period reflected the fact that Black Friday, which sees huge promotional activity and heavy discounting, was included in the December figures this year but in November in 2018. Last month's trading period ran from November 24 to December 28.

Non-food sales, which tend to reflect the more discretionary elements of retail spending, were in value terms in the December trading period down by 0.8% on the same month of 2018. Food sales value was up by 1.8% on a year earlier.

The SRC observed a “vegetable price war” in the grocery sector, as food retailers attempted to tempt customers.

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Mr Lonsdale said: “Christmas food sales were positive, with consumers able to take advantage of a vegetable price war as grocers cut the price of traditional staples such as brussels sprouts and parsnips to convince customers to do the big shop with them. Spirits, gins, and soft drinks also all did well over the period.”

The 0.4% year-on-year rise in Scottish retail sales value in the December trading period significantly trailed a corresponding 1.9% increase for the UK as a whole, which was reported last week by the British Retail Consortium.

However, Scottish retail sales had shown a less-steep year-on-year fall in the November trading period, dropping by 2.5% in value terms. Total sales value in the UK as a whole was down by 4.4% year-on-year during this period. Both the Scottish and broader UK figures for November reflected the Black Friday timing effect.

Focusing on the picture over November and December, Mr Lonsdale said: “Retailers will be slightly disappointed, albeit a little relieved Scottish trading figures were a touch more buoyant than elsewhere in the UK.”

He noted non-food sales were mixed, with kitchen appliances, bluetooth devices and beauty ranges performing “reasonably”. However, he observed that clothing and footwear sales “struggled, in part due to consumers looking to take more financially discerning and environmentally sustainable approaches to their Christmas shopping”.

He added: “Customers tended to shop early, around Black Friday discounting, and in the final few days before Christmas – with some retailers reporting as a consequence that Boxing Day sales were slow.”

The British Retail Consortium said last week that total sales in the UK had in 2019 fallen for the first time in 25 years, with November and December notably weak. The 12-month average year-on-year decline for total sales value for the UK as a whole was 0.1%. The corresponding year-on-year fall for Scotland in the SRC figures is 0.2%.

Paul Martin, UK head of retail at accountancy firm KPMG, said: “At first sight, an increase in sales of 0.4% offers some relief, but the late date of Black Friday has somewhat skewed the figures and, if we look at both November and December for comparison with [the previous] year, a drop in sales [value] of almost 1% offers a more realistic picture of the struggle facing the retail industry.”

He cited a move in demand towards new channels, higher costs and ongoing economic uncertainty as continuing challenges facing retailers.