Friday, December 4, 2009

Breaking for the Border!

Today the CSO published a major report on the extent of cross border shopping. They calculate that shoppers here spent about €435m in Northern Ireland between June 2008 and June 2009. They provide details of the numbers of households travelling north, the regions they are from, the amount they are spending and what they are buying.

Given all the hullabaloo about cross border shopping, it is good that we have independent and extensive data on which to make conclusions and of course to enable the Government to make the right decisions in response to what they see as a problem. I accept that cross border shopping is costing the State revenue, which of course pays for public services. However cross border shopping is a world wide phenomenon and as even the CSO and Revenue report in February noted it was not a new phenomenon here. I would argue that cross border shopping is actually a good thing for our economy as a whole in the long term, because it will force retailers to adjust their prices to retain customers fleeing to the North to escape high prices. That will be good for consumers and competitiveness.

Lithuanians crossing the border to shop in Poland.

The first thing that struck me was the large difference between what the CSO estimate is spent in the North by shoppers and what other reports have estimated. While the data from the CSO and Nielsen is at one on the numbers of households travelling North at around 16%, they differ a lot on the other aspects. CSO says that the spending was in the region of €435m, whereas others such as InterTrade Ireland claim that the overall cost to the Republic's economy as a whole will be in the region of €810m this year. Obviously spending and cost to the economy are not the same thing, but both figures cannot be correct. Much of the spending is on food which is VAT exempt, so the loss to the State is on increased profits and knock on employment taxes, but surely an expenditure of €435m, the vast majority of which is on groceries cannot stretch to €810m? ABFI are interpreting the Nielsen figures as representing a loss of €400m in taxes and excise for the State. Again I don't know the basis for these figures, but they seem very high based on the CSO data.

People and commentators can believe what they want, I have to say I have more faith in the CSO data because the Quarterly National Household Survey is based on interviews with 39,000 households. Also, the CSO does not have an agenda, unlike the drinks and retail industries who have been fleecing consumers for years and are now getting a pay-back for the price pain inflicted on consumers here.

We are led to believe that the key driver of cross border shopping is the price of alcohol. The conventional wisdom is that shoppers endure the trip and long queues to stock up on vast amounts of alcohol. I have no doubt some people do go North to buy alcohol, but is it the key reason? The drinks industry in the shape of ABFI would like you to believe it is. Of course, this also suits the retailers as it deflects attention away from the high cost of groceries. They want the Government to cut excise on alcohol by 20% in the Budget. However the actual data from CSO would appear to undermine that argument. It shows that ;

  • 80% bought groceries on their most recent trip, while only 44% bought alcohol.
  • Of the average household spend on cross border shopping of €286, only €32 or 11% was spent on alcohol, not the vast sums we are lead to believe.
  • Consumers from the border region are the key group where business is being lost, they are more likely to travel to Northern Ireland to shop and more regularly-41% of border households compared to national average of 16%.
  • They are also frequent cross border shoppers, 5.9 trips on average in the last year compared to the 1.1 trips national average.
  • Border shoppers are primarily going North to buy groceries, they had the lowest spend on alcohol and the 2nd highest spend on groceries.

This suggests in my view that even if the Government reduces excise on alcohol, it will have limited impact on cross border shopping. The key driver is the high cost of groceries. So if excise on alcohol is reduced, we could end up with a scenario where the State will lose further revenue and cross border shopping will continue. If the Government want people to spend more here and travel North less, then they need to address the price of food and groceries. The idea that reducing excise on alcohol is the magic bullet to stop the flow of cross border shopping is misguided.