Bleak start to 2013 as poorest UK households feel the squeeze

A widening gap between rich and poor, people staying indoors rather than going shopping in the snow, and profits slumps at consumer goods companies paint a bleak picture for the start of this year.

Although there have been recoveries in the markets, Britons are still struggling with the impact of the financial crisis, which has now lasted almost as long as the Second World War.

Household finances have deteriorated at the fastest pace since September, according to a survey undertaken by Markit this month. The UK's poorest families were hardest hit by the present inflation squeeze, as they admitted to the sharpest rise in debt in the survey's four-year history.

Those with annual incomes of less than £15,000 suffered the biggest slide in their financial position for 14 months. The highest earners – above £57,700 – were also worse off but saw a much shallower decline.

Markit senior economist Tim Moore said: "The lowest-income households saw their financial situation move in an entirely different direction to the highest earners in February."

Mr Moore added that worsening consumer finances are likely to result shoppers spending less on the high street. This would add to a dreadful start of the year, when bad weather was yet again blamed for customers keeping warm at home rather than hitting the shops.

The number of visitors to Britain's shops fell by 4.6 per cent in January. Adding to the gloom, nearly one-in-nine shop units were either closed down or empty, according to the British Retail Consortium and Springboard survey.

Reflecting the hazardous conditions on the roads, out-of-town retail parks suffered the highest fall in visitors of 7.2 per cent. There was only a 3.3 per cent decline in high street shoppers, though Springboard research director Diane Wehrle pointed out that this was the biggest drop since 2010.

Accountant Deloitte also found that nearly half of consumer products companies have seen profit hit as agricultural commodity prices increased the cost of raw materials. Some companies are looking to bypass retailers and sell directly to customers.

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