Spending on clothes and shoes fell to record lows as the recession started to bite in the UK in 2008.
The Office for National Statistics (ONS) found that fashion shopping was at its lowest level since 2001-02 when the survey began, down to an average of £21.60 per week. This fall in spending could signal people's desire to cut back on non-essential items during 2008. It could also be due to the big discounts being offered by stores towards the end of 2008 as the banking crisis created turmoil in the economy.
But it also appears to be due to the "Primark effect" in which cut-price "throwaway" fashion has taken over the high street. Sarah Peters, a retail analyst for Verdict Research, said that the volume of clothing sales rose by 3.4 per cent in 2008 compared with a 2 per cent rise in the £41.1bn clothing market, suggesting that more but cheaper garments were being sold.
Ms Peters said: "2008 was a difficult year for retailers – the summer was a washout which affects clothing sales. Then there was a lot of deflation in the market so stores made a lot of discounts. People were still buying relatively large volumes until the back end of the year when people did cut back on their spending. The growth of budget retailers has also had an effect. People have bought so much clothing over the last three or four years that it's something that they were able to cut back on when times were a bit harder."
Matilda Lee, consumer affairs editor of The Ecologist and author of Eco Chic, a guide to ethical fashion, said: "We are buying more of our clothes from these budget stores. The average woman now buys 34 new items of clothes a year, a figure that has nearly doubled in the past decade. And the average cost of clothes has dropped by 36 per cent, with £1 in every £4 now spent on bargain fashion."
But Simon McRae, campaigns officer at War on Want, warned that the true cost of cheap clothes was borne by foreign workers toiling in sweatshops. Last month the charity's research showed that workers toiled for up to 84 hours a week and earned as little as £19 a month making Primark clothes in Bangladesh. The company denies the allegations, insisting that ethical business practices were of "paramount importance" and arguing that it worked tirelessly to raise standards at their suppliers' factories. Yesterday the company announced that profits had risen by 19 per cent over the last 16 weeks of 2009.
Overall, the ONS report showed that average household spending rose to £471 a week in the UK in 2008, up from £459.20 the previous year. However, allowing for inflation, the average amount households spent had actually dipped compared with the previous year.
The figures showed a continuing drop in spending – once the effects of inflation are removed – every year since 2004-05.