April sunshine adds to March decline

April sunshine adds to March decline

Booksellers have suffered the worst March in six years, in one of the worst months across retail in almost 20 years.

High street and indie retailers seem to be particularly feeling the Spring pinch, after March sales reached a six year low, slumping by 8.7% year-on-year according to Nielsen BookScan.

The figures reveal shoppers spent £103.3m at UK booksellers in the four weeks to 2nd April, down £8.98m on last year. Volume sales fared worse, diving 12.2% to 14.2m on the same period last year. However, the average selling price nudged up 4.0% to £7.26.

The figures were revealed as the British Retail Consortium and KPMG confirmed general UK retail sales were hit by their worst slump since records began in 1995, with sales falling by 1.9% in March and like-for-like sales plunging by 3.5% in comparison to March last year. Rising inflation, coupled with consumers’ low wage growth, mounting fuel and utility costs, falling house prices and higher VAT have been blamed for the retail woes.

Analysts predict recent sunny weather has also impacted sales at Waterstone’s and HMV in April, with Arden Partners analyst Nick Bubb decreasing his estimate for the amount of pre-tax profit the HMV Group will make to £26m, £4m lower than the company’s own estimate of £30m. Bubb said: “Given the book market figures, I don’t think the weather will have helped. We expect that April has started badly because of the impact of the fine weather on customer footfall. Generally, in fine weather people want to be outside, not stuck indoors; it is the same for most retail.”

The same mood has been reflected at some indie bookshops around the country, with David Dawkins of Pages of Hackney in London reporting low footfall across two weekends while the sun has been shining. He said: “We have had two quiet weekends now, really quiet taking around 35-40 transactions on both the 2nd and 9th April, which is low.”

Mark Farrer, sales manager at Fenwick’s bookshop in Newcastle, said sales had dropped around 10% year-on-year in the first three months of 2011 in comparison to the year before, although the shop has moved location. He said: “January was ok, but through February and March it has just been generally very slow.”

However, other indies have reported a upturn in footfall and sales in April. James Daunt, who owns four Daunt bookshops in London, said that his sales had not been hit in March or affected by the weather. “The sun is normally a good thing over anything else,” he said. “The Easter holidays affect us, we get a lot of people buying books before they go away, then it slows down during holiday periods so we have been busy recently because it is the run-up to Easter.”

Sainsbury’s also reported it had maintained its general double digit growth year-on-year throughout March. However, the supermarket’s head of books, Phil Carroll, added: “The week after Mother’s Day is always a low point due to titles being pulled into the schedules for Mother’s Day.”

March’s figures come as HarperCollins president and c.e.o. Brian Murray warned LBF audiences that a potential future trend for bookbuying in the United Kingdom could be the heaviest book buyers avoiding high street bookshops altogether.

Murray said the number of US e-readers had grown from 15m a year ago to 40m today, and was having a disproportionately large effect on the market because they had reached “core” readers (those buying over 12 books a year). He said: “Some of the heaviest book buyers no longer visit bookstores.”