Clothes sales boosted UK retailers ahead of reopening

Shoppers on the lookout for new clothes helped to lift retail sales by 5.4% in March, continuing a partial recovery that started in February.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) said clothing saw the biggest rise in sales volumes last month, with a 17.5% increase.

Despite the jump, clothing sales remain far below pre-pandemic levels.

Retailers told the ONS that shoppers may have been snapping up new outfits before lockdown restrictions eased.

From Monday 29 March, the government allowed outdoor meet-ups to resume in England, while groups of up to six could drink or eat together in pubs and restaurants from 12 April.

Other non-food stores reported an uplift of 13.4%, with medical goods suppliers suggesting older consumers were buying mobility equipment and venturing out more after being vaccinated.

Garden centres and flower shops also reported monthly growth of 7.4% as those stuck at home more during lockdowns spruced up their outdoor spaces.

Petrol stations also saw strong growth of 11.1%, reflecting the easing of travel restrictions.

Samuel Tombs, chief UK economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics, said retailers had benefitted “immediately from the rebound in consumers’ confidence in March”.

He also pointed out that food stores may have profited from restaurants, cafes and pubs largely being closed during the reporting period, which ran until one day before Easter Sunday.

Food retailers saw a sales uplift of 2.5% in March, with specialist shops likebutchers and bakers seeing strong trade as consumers bought goods to celebrate at home, the ONS said.

Elsewhere, online spending increased in March, up 0.6% when compared with February 2021.

This was the largest monthly growth in the sector since June 2020, and was largely driven by customers buying new clothes and shoes to refresh their wardrobes.

Lynda Petherick, head of retail at Accenture UK & Ireland, said: “After a year of what’s felt like endless lockdowns, there is now a palpable sense of excitement among retailers and shoppers alike.”

The proportion of online spending overall fell to 34.7%, down from 36.2% in February, but still remains far higher than pre-lockdown figures.

But Ms Petherick added: “We expect demand for online to remain strong post the reopening of non-essential retail.

“Though retailers will be keen to capitalise on the return of shoppers to the High Street, they must also strike a balance across both their physical and digital offering, or risk losing out to competitors that learned strategic lessons from the pandemic,” she said.

All non-essential shops in England and Wales were able to welcome customers from 12 April, more than three months after closing their doors.

In the first week after restrictions eased, figures from the British Retail Consortium indicated footfall jumped by almost 200% in England.

In Scotland, non-essential retail is due to reopen on 26 April, while in Northern Ireland, only contactless click-and-collect will be permitted for non-essential retail businesses from 12 April.

Shopping in 10 minutes: The new supermarket battleground

“I’m amazed it hasn’t been done earlier by some of the big supermarket chains,” says satisfied customer Kiran Wylie.

“To be able to deliver supermarket-quality food within 10 minutes is very enticing.”

The 28-year-old communications manager lives in Hackney, one of the London boroughs that form the new battleground of grocery shopping.

If you live in the right part of the country, you can now call on a whole raft of app-based systems that promise to bring you groceries within 10 to 15 minutes.

Agile start-ups with names such as Weezy, Gorillas and Dija are promising instant deliveries with no substitutions. Kiran has tried all three, but likes Dija best because he finds its app is easier to navigate.

“Where I live is quite far away from the nearest shop and I wanted something that’s quite quick and has a good selection of products,” says Kiran.

Some of these services have come to the UK from overseas, including Turkish-based Getir, which offers goods “from iceberg lettuce to ice-cold beer” and proclaims on its website: “Minutes matter – life is hectic.”

Gorillas, which hails from Berlin, claims to be “faster than you” in what it calls the “last-mile delivery of essential human needs”.

Others are homegrown and are keen to take on foreign markets. London-based Dija, which says it provides “the best grocery experience with none of the hassle”, is planning to expand not only into other UK cities, but also into Europe.

Dija set up shop just three months ago, having secured $20m (£14.5m) of seed funding from venture capital firms. It has already hired 80 people and covers about half of London.

It charges a flat fee of £1.99 ($2.80; €2.30) for delivery, with every order supplied by its own fleet of riders on electric bikes, directly employed by the company.

It pledges that if the goods don’t arrive in 10 minutes, you get three months’ worth of free deliveries.

So how do they do it? Chad West, Dija’s director of brand marketing, says it’s all down to a hyper-local, data-driven model.

“Every area where we operate has its own fulfilment centre,” he says. “If it’s a large borough and we need to open a second one, we do that.”

Each fulfilment centre stocks about 2,000 items, in a carefully chosen selection tailored to the demographics of the area.

Asked how Dija can make a profit, Mr West says that as with all tech firms, “becoming a profitable business is not an immediate priority” as it prefers to invest in growth initially.

However, he says the delivery fee “pretty much covers the cost of fulfilling an order” and that Dija buys its groceries wholesale to sell retail: “We’re not just going to a supermarket and filling a basket.”

Mr West realises that Dija is one firm in a crowded field, but doesn’t see those rival start-ups as a problem.

“We’re not competing with those guys,” he says. “The reality is, we’re competing against Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury’s. That’s where the customers are going to come from.”

More Technology of Business

Although the growth in rapid grocery delivery apps may seem to be a product of the pandemic, the first such firm to launch in the UK, Weezy, was conceived as far back as September 2019.

And chief operating officer Alec Dent, who co-founded the firm with chief executive Christof Van Beveren, wasn’t afraid of getting his hands dirty when the pair set up their first base in Fulham.

“I did 400 deliveries myself in the early days,” he says. “That was very important, because you understand what it’s like to deliver.”

Mr Dent also has a background in the start-up sector, having worked as vice-president of operations for car subscription firm Drover.

But he is keen to play down the idea that Weezy is a tech firm, describing it as a grocer and retailer that happens to use an app.

Weezy’s website doesn’t refer to “warehouses” or “fulfilment centres”, but calls its premises “stores”. And they have store managers, who can manage their selection of goods and make changes.

“We work with local brands and butchers and bakers,” says Mr Dent. “Our customers like the convenience of online, but they also want to support their local shops.”

Weezy also places emphasis on fresh produce, rather than frozen or convenience food. And although ordering quick deliveries on your mobile phone might seem the preserve of the young and tech-savvy, it says it has loyal elderly customers too.

“Groceries are something every age bracket uses,” says Mr Dent. “It’s not like takeaway, which is much more geared to people in their 20s and 30s.”

Weezy charges a delivery fee of £2.95. When asked about profitability, Mr Dent says that many customers are using them not just for the odd item, but for bigger shops as well.

“People shop large baskets. It’s a significantly higher spend than Deliveroo, which helps,” he says.

“If you suddenly need a lemon, because you’ve run out and you’ve got people coming for dinner, you can do that, just as you might run out to the local store.

“But we find that on average, the quantity people buy and the amount they spend is more than that.”

So far, Weezy has 100 employees spread across 15 sites, including Brighton, Bristol and now Manchester. It plans to open 150 more this year.

The existing players, including Morrisons and the Co-op, have been teaming up with food delivery firms to get their products out faster.

Sainsbury’s, for one, has just announced it is expanding its partnership with Deliveroo, meaning that about 30% of the population can now choose from some 1,000 Sainsbury’s products within 20 minutes.

Deliveroo is not confining its operations to the UK. Last week, it announced that it was partnering with Carrefour stores in France, Belgium, Italy and Spain.

However, Deliveroo has a different business model from the other app-based services, since it relies on the “going to a supermarket and filling a basket” system so derided by Dija.

Meanwhile, Ocado is planning to expand its Zoom service, which has been operating in West London and promises groceries in 30 minutes.

The retail industry likes to talk about “fast-moving consumer goods”, but as retail analyst Kate Hardcastle puts it, we now have fast-moving consumers.

“For a lot of people, grocery shopping is a means to an end, not a very exciting part of life, so they want to automate it,” she says.

Even in the longer term, she adds, these rapid grocery delivery services are unlikely to cover the whole country. “It’s more suited to intense heavily built-up areas.” But even so, it “creates an appetite for things to be faster”, she says.

Ms Hardcastle sees the firms as “pioneers trying to break the boundaries” and says they will certainly have the big supermarkets scratching their heads.

Not all of these pioneers will survive, but as she says, these are times in which notions that were once far-fetched can swiftly become part of everyday life.

“The magic is when you find the sweet spot of what the customers want and what they are willing to pay for,” she says.

Ghana basks in Twitters surprise choice as Africa HQ

Twitter delivered a surprise for Africa when it said it was establishing a regional headquarters in the West African nation of Ghana, triggering vigorous debate about the business environment for technology start-ups across the continent.

For the social media giant, its decision was based on shared values – Ghana supports “free speech, online freedom, and the open internet”.

The fact it also serves as the HQ for the African Continental Free Trade Area – established to accelerate intra-African trade and freedom of movement – seems to have cemented Ghana’s appeal as a gateway to the region.

Ghana was a way of becoming “more immersed in the rich and vibrant communities that drive the conversations taking place every day across the African continent”, Twitter said.

Ghanaian President Nana Akufo-Addo was quick to retweet the news, saying it was the start of a “beautiful partnership” and critical for the development of Ghana’s tech hub.

“These are exciting times to be in, and to do business in Ghana.”

Yet many industry leaders were initially stunned.

“In Africa what has generally been considered the tech hubs of the continent have traditionally been Egypt, Nigeria, South Africa and Kenya,” says Kenya-based Kagure Wamunyu, who leads the expansion of Kobo 360, a digital haulage start-up that connects freight owners with lorry drivers.

Kenya in particular, she says, has successfully nurtured an enabling environment for the technology ecosystem and leads the pack when it comes to high levels of internet penetration.

“So it was an interesting choice, but the move to Ghana is still a win for the continent.”

On reflection, Nigerian tech pioneer Femi Longe agrees Ghana was an obvious choice.

“Nigeria is a big attractive market but if we’re honest it’s a very harsh place to do business. Ghana has invested quite a lot in recent years on creating an environment that is attractive for people coming from the outside.”

He has worked in two of the continent’s most vibrant tech hubs, in Nigeria’s main city Lagos, he co-founded the Co-Creation Hub which then acquired Kenya’s iHub – another leading innovation centre.

He thinks the proactiveness of Ghana’s president clearly played a pivotal role in Twitter’s decision.

“If you look at Kenya, Ghana and Nigeria in terms of political stability and quality of leadership, there’s only one country that stands out.

“If a company is thinking about the potential impact of government policy, I would go with Ghana. Ghana is an access point to Nigeria, so you get the full benefits of access to the Nigerian market without any of the dysfunction that comes with being there.”

And Nigeria’s “dysfunction” became a talking-point after the announcement with start-up founders sharing their experiences.

Nigerian Information Minister Lai Mohammed blamed the media’s negative coverage of Nigeria for Twitter’s snub, saying: “This is what you get when you de-market your own country.”

However, some, such as Nkemdilim Uwaje Begho – the CEO of Lagos-based digital marketing firm FutureSoft – argue that the issues go far deeper in Nigeria, where policies tend to be reactive not enabling, failing to consult those who work in what is a thriving tech industry.

“Across sectors we’ve seen regulators step in to regulate after technology companies have disrupted the market,” she says.

“While regulation is good, what it sometimes means is that you’re creating barriers to entry by creating high licence fees for example. Regulators need to think about the bigger picture and the long-term impact of these regulations and policies.”

A recent example of regulation stifling entrepreneurship was the 2020 ban of commercial motorcycle taxis from core business and residential areas of Lagos – introduced as a number of internationally funded ride-hailing platforms, including Gokada, ORide and Max.ng, launched to service the huge demand.

Ghanaians meanwhile are hoping that their economy will bounce high on the Twitter trampoline – but also want to see local people being hired.

“It would be good to see if they introduce a quota, that maybe the government imposes to get them to recruit a certain percentage of Ghanaians,” says Regina Honu, who runs Soronko Academy, a digital skills development centre in Ghana’s capital, Accra.

“With other organisations coming in you see a lot of diasporans returning and there will be lots of other Africans looking to come and work in Ghana. Hopefully they will come in and engage with developing talent.”

Her organisation is among a number of companies flourishing within Ghana’s increasingly vibrant tech scene.

When George Appiah, executive director of Ghana Tech Lab, which helps develop innovation and entrepreneurial skills, started out almost a decade ago, there were only three technology hubs in Accra.

Today there are around 50 across the country, including the company he founded, Kumasi Hive.

“Compared to other countries where you might find the tech space thriving in only one city like Nairobi or Lagos, in Ghana we have the ecosystem growing in such a way that you have a lot of start-ups in Kumasi, in Takoradi, in Tamale and then Accra. It’s very decentralised and that’s a testament to the depth of the ecosystem.”

In 2012 the government had very little interest in the sector, he says.

“Now we have a government who is appreciating the digital space and the role of tech start-ups.

“Efforts have been made gradually to provide policies to support start-ups. Local investments are growing over time.”

While this is laudable, Ghanaian entrepreneur Herman Chinery-Hesse says domestic technology firms are often undervalued while international companies are placed on a pedestal.

He founded one of West Africa’s leading software development firms, the SOFTtribe, more than 25 years ago and says he would have expected to see more home-grown firms or African social media platforms with clout.

“Where are the Ghanaian ‘Twitters’? Are local companies being given the support that they need to also become ‘Twitters’?”

Despite these sentiments, Mr Chinery-Hesse says he does believe there will be a “spill-over” in terms of jobs and a potential influx of foreign multinationals influenced by Twitter’s presence.

It all points to Ghana becoming the “hotbed of innovation”, as former senior Twitter executive Bruce Daisley puts it.

“I think it’s a real keen endorsement of Africa,” he says about Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey’s Ghana move.

“Jack was really inspired by the spirit of invention and the spirit of entrepreneurial creativity. I think this small baby step is a reflection of that.”

Vebitcoin: Turkey arrests four people after cryptocurrency collapses

Turkish authorities say four people linked to the cryptocurrency platform Vebitcoin have been arrested, accused of fraud.

Hours earlier, the company abruptly announced it had ceased operations, citing financial strains.

Officials also launched an investigation and blocked the accounts of the platform.

Earlier this week, a second Turkish platform, Thodex, shut down holding investments from about 390,000 users.

Increasing numbers of people are opting to use cryptocurrencies in Turkey in an attempt to protect their savings from a sharp decline in the value of the local currency, the lira. But the Turkish cryptocurrency market is unregulated.

Last week, Turkey said it would ban the use of cryptocurrencies to pay for goods and services from 30 April.

Mehmet Nadir Yagci, a prosecutor in the south-western city of Mugla, said the four arrested were administrators and personnel of the platform.

On Friday, Vebitcoin announced on its website it had stopped all activities “in order to fulfil all regulations and claims”. It was not immediately clear how many people had been affected.

“Due to the recent developments in the crypto money industry, there was a much higher density in our operations than expected. We would like to state with regret that this situation has led us to a very difficult process,” it said.

Meanwhile, Turkey has issued an international arrest warrant for the Thodex founder, Faruk Fatih Ozer, who reportedly fled to Albania with an alleged $2bn (£1.4bn) from investors.

Police also arrested 62 people over alleged connections to Thodex. Mr Ozer called the allegations against him “baseless” and said he was in Albania for work meetings.

On Wednesday, Thodex posted a message saying it needed five days to handle an unspecified outside investment before it suspended trading. An investigation into the platform has been launched.

Apple event: AirTag, iPad and iMac lead line-up

Apple has shown off its latest product line-up in its first big event of 2021.

The firm is increasing the number of products which will contain its own in-house developed M1 chip, as the sector struggles with a global semiconductor shortage.

It finally unveiled its much-anticipated tracker tile, the AirTag, which will launch at the end of April.

And it announced its first significant update to the iconic iMac desktop computer in recent years.

It also showcased a new iPad Pro, complete with M1 chip and 5G connectivity.

What was not discussed, but was later shared by Apple, was the roll-out of the latest version of its operating system, iOS 14.5, which will include a controversial update limiting what app owners can see about user activity outside of their own apps without permission.

It’s a popular business model for “free” internet services, including Facebook, which use the data they gather on their members’ online habits to target advertising.

AirTags have been highly-anticipated by Apple fans. They are small round disks which can be attached to anything, and transmit a Bluetooth signal to a home gadget – an iPad or iPhone – to alert the user to their location.

The original Tile tracker, a rival product, launched following a successful crowdfunding campaign in 2014.

AirTags will cost £29 ($29 in US) and are due to launch on April 30, said Apple engineering program manager Carolyn Wolfman-Estrada. They work with all devices containing the U1 chip, which includes the iPhone 11 (which launched in 2019) and later models.

She also said they were designed to “track items not people”, with features such as rotating identifiers and audible alerts from unknown tags built in to protect privacy.

Colleen Novielli showed off new super-thin iMacs in seven different colours, built with Apple’s new M1 chip, and a 24in, 11.3 million pixel screen, along with a revamped camera and other upgrades. One of Apple’s older products, the iMac has not seen a significant revamp for years.

However, it only has a top RAM (the device’s short-term memory) of 16GB, putting it on a par with the older Mac Mini.

“It is little surprise Apple has resisted updating the iMac over the last few years, given the transformational impact the M1 architecture has had on the overall design,” commented Leo Gebbie from CCS insight.

“This is an endorsement of Apple’s multi-year, multi-billion-dollar investment in creating its own silicon platforms which now power all its key devices.”

The M1 chip, an ultra-wide camera and 5G data connectivity are all coming to the new iPad Pro, said product manager Raja Bose.

The M1 chip will make the latest version’s graphics performance 1,500 times faster than the original, he said, in a presentation which focused on the iPad’s graphics and gaming benefits.

The new model will also feature up to 2 terabytes of storage.

According to analysts IDC, the tablet market overall grew in 2020 for the first time in seven years, with sales driven by consumers and education providers during the global pandemic.

“Tablets emerged as a reliable alternative for consumers to meet their needs for content consumption and provide access to remote schooling during the lockdown,” said Daniel Goncalves from IDC.

Mr Goncalves added that many households had bought extra tablets in the last 12 months, in order to keep up with their increased use.

Apple also announced a new subscription podcast platform, in keeping with its move towards streaming services, first announced in 2019.

And it showed off a new 4K Apple TV, with a re-designed Siri remote and HDR (High Dynamic Range). HDR offers a greater range of colours, making pictures more vivid and realistic. Sky launched an HDR service last year for a selection of its nature documentaries – but only to customers with specific premium subscriptions.

This launch wasn’t exactly chock-a-block with surprises.

The move to Apple’s own silicon has so far been a success.

The new M1 chip Macbooks have had rave reviews – so it was only a matter of time before Apple switched its other products over to the new design.

The new iMacs and iPads will be the fastest and most powerful ever – though it would of course be preposterous if they weren’t.

Interestingly Apple also announced its much speculated AirTags.

You’ll be able to attach it to your keys or your dog’s collar, anything. If you lose them, you’ll be able to find it using your phone.

This looks very much like a product already on the market, Tile – though AirTags appears at first view to have a different tracking system.

This is another example in the long line of Big Tech companies borrowing/copying ideas from smaller companies, and it’s these kinds of moves that many US lawmakers don’t like.

And this launch was interesting too for what wasn’t discussed.

It was speculated that Apple might launch its new app tracking transparency feature – and we now know the latest version of its operating system, iOS 14.5, is due out next week.

Apple wants to limit how companies follow you on the internet on Apple devices. It says it wants to protect its customer’s privacy.

Platforms like Facebook, that relies heavily on ad revenue, is against the move.

However this evening’s event was all about the products.

TikTok sued for billions over use of childrens data

TikTok is facing a legal challenge from former children’s commissioner for England Anne Longfield over how it collects and uses children’s data.

The claim is being filed on behalf of millions of children in the UK and EU who have used the hugely popular video-sharing app.

If successful, the children affected could each be owed thousands of pounds.

TikTok said the case was without merit and it would fight it.

Lawyers will allege that TikTok takes children’s personal information, including phone numbers, videos, exact location and biometric data, without sufficient warning, transparency or the necessary consent required by law, and without children or parents knowing what is being done with that information.

In response, the video-sharing app said: “Privacy and safety are top priorities for TikTok and we have robust policies, processes and technologies in place to help protect all users, and our teenage users in particular. We believe the claims lack merit and intend to vigorously defend the action.”

TikTok has more than 800 million users worldwide and parent firm ByteDance made billions in profits last year, with the vast majority of that coming via advertising revenue.

The claim is being launched on behalf of all children who have used TikTok since 25 May 2018, regardless of whether they have an account or their privacy settings. Children not wishing to be represented can opt out.

Ms Longfield told the BBC she was focusing on TikTok because, while all social media platforms collected information, TikTok had “excessive” data collection policies.

“TikTok is a hugely popular social media platform that has helped children keep in touch with their friends during an incredibly difficult year. However, behind the fun songs, dance challenges and lip-sync trends lies something far more sinister.”

She alleges the firm is “a data collection service that is thinly veiled as a social network” which has “deliberately and successfully deceived parents”.

She added that those parents have a “right to know” what private information is being collected via TikTok’s “shadowy data collection practices”.

The case is being represented by law firm Scott and Scott. Partner Tom Southwell said he believed the information collected by TikTok represents “a severe breach of UK and EU data protection law”.

“TikTok and ByteDance’s advertising revenue is built on the personal information of its users, including children. Profiting from this information without fulfilling its legal obligations, and its moral duty to protect children online, is unacceptable.”

The case is not without precedent.

In 2019, the Chinese firm was given a record $5.7m fine by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), for mishandling children’s data.

The firm has been fined in South Korea over how it collects children’s data, and in the UK, it has been investigated by the Information Commissioner’s Office.

That action revolved around Musical.ly, which was incorporated into TikTok, knowingly hosting content published by users under the age of 13.

TikTok was ordered to delete the data and set up an age verification system.

According to Ofcom, 44% of eight to 12-year-olds in the UK use TikTok, despite its policies forbidding under-13s on the platform.

The legal action against TikTok was first brought by an anonymous 12-year-old girl last year, supported by Ms Longfield.

At the time, Ms Longfield said she was waiting to see the result of another case before proceeding with suing TikTok.

The case in question was brought by Which? director Richard Lloyd on behalf of four million iPhone users who, he alleges, were illegally tracked by Google.

Despite being launched in 2017, the case has still not had the go-ahead and is due to be heard by the Supreme Court soon.

“It could be difficult for similar cases to succeed if the Supreme Court dismisses Mr Lloyd’s ability to bring his claim,” said Richard Leedham, partner at law firm Mishcon de Reya.

Higher petrol prices drive up cost of living in March

The UK inflation rate rose to 0.7% in the 12 months to March, up from 0.4% in February, pushed up by the increased cost of fuel, transport and clothes.

The figure from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) was slightly below economists’ forecasts, with lower food prices offsetting other price rises.

Fuel prices in March showed their biggest annual increase since January 2020, the ONS said.

Inflation is forecast to rise further due to higher energy and oil prices.

The Bank of England has forecast that inflation could reach 1.9% by the end of 2021, with other experts saying it will exceed 2% before the end of year.

The March inflation figure would have been higher without a fall in food prices, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) said.

ONS deputy national statistician Jonathan Athow said: “The rate of inflation increased with petrol prices rising and clothes recovering from the falls seen in February.

“However, food prices fell back on the year, as prices of some staples were lower than at the start of the pandemic.”

Inflation had unexpectedly eased in February, in part because of the biggest annual fall in clothing and footwear costs since 2009.

Discounting, which had been commonplace in February, eased somewhat in March, the ONS said, however it was still unseasonably high.

Pantheon’s chief UK economist, Samuel Tombs, believes the Consumer Prices Index (CPI) will reach the Bank of England’s 2% target rate as early as May.

“Looking ahead, CPI inflation looks set to jump to about 1.7% in April, driven primarily by a large semi-annual increase in electricity and natural gas prices, as well as the anniversary of the collapse in oil prices at the start of the pandemic,” he said.

“April’s data also will be collected after shops reopened and hospitality businesses resumed outdoor service, so the inflation rates for clothing and food service activities probably will both rise.”

And Paul Craig, at Quilter Investors, said that with the UK economy opening from lockdown, inflation had reached a turning point.

“Price growth is now on an upward trajectory, and should remain so for some time to come,” he warned. “From here, inflation may tick markedly higher if the steady drip of consumer spending morphs into a waterfall as lockdown restrictions are lifted and households spend some of their accumulated pandemic savings.”

Inflation fell in the early months of lockdown last year, with petrol hitting as low as 106.2p per litre in May. The ONS said on Tuesday that pump prices hit 123.7p a litre in March.

Domestic energy bills are also rising. Regulator Ofgem’s price cap on household bills rose from the beginning of this month.

Laith Khalaf, financial analyst at AJ Bell, said: “The big question is whether the economic recovery, combined with fiscal and monetary stimulus, will start to foster a more sustained, inflationary trend that has the potential to get out of hand.”

But he added: “This risk isn’t likely to come home to roost anytime soon, with unemployment expected to rise later this year, thereby acting as a drag on rising wages.”

Meanwhile, the Retail Price Index (RPI), used to calculate train ticket price rises and student loan interest, rose from 1.4% to 1.5%.

Asda takeover could lead to higher petrol prices

Asda’s sale to forecourt tycoons the Issa brothers could raise petrol prices in some parts of the UK, the competition watchdog has warned.

The Competition and Markets Authority found “local competition concerns” regarding fuel in 37 areas in the UK.

Zuber and Mohsin Issa, and TDR Capital, agreed to buy Asda for £6.8bn last year. However, they also own 395 UK petrol stations while Asda owns 323.

The Issa brothers said they would work with the CMA to find a solution.

The deal to buy the UK’s third-largest supermarket chain from its US owner Walmart was announced in October last year.

However, the CMA launched an initial inquiry into the takeover in December to see if it would lead to a “substantial lessening of competition”.

Following the competition body’s initial findings, the buyers now have five working days to address its concerns and avoid a more in-depth investigation.

Joel Bamford, CMA senior director of mergers, said: “Our job is to protect consumers by making sure there continues to be strong competition between petrol stations, which leads to lower prices at the pump.

“These are two key players in the market, and it’s important that we thoroughly analyse the deal to make sure that people don’t end up paying over the odds.

“Right now, we’re concerned the merger could lead to higher prices for motorists in certain parts of the UK. However, if the companies can provide a clear-cut solution to address our concerns, we won’t carry out an in-depth Phase 2 investigation.”

A spokesperson for the Issa brothers and TDR Capital said: “We will be working constructively with the CMA over the course of the next 10 days in order to arrive at a satisfactory outcome for all parties within Phase 1.

“This would provide welcome certainty for our colleagues, suppliers and customers, and allow us to move forward with our exciting plans for investment and growth at Asda.”

UK government intervenes in Nvidia takeover of chip designer Arm

The UK government is to examine the sale of computer chip designer Arm Holdings to a US company on national security grounds.

Japan’s SoftBank intended to sell the UK tech company to Nvidia for about $40bn (£29.5bn).

But Digital Secretary Oliver Dowden said he wanted the UK’s competition watchdog to assess its implications.

“Following careful consideration of the proposed takeover, I have today issued an intervention notice,” he said.

“As a next step and to help me gather the relevant information, the UK’s independent competition authority will now prepare a report on the implications of the transaction, which will help inform any further decisions.”

Arm’s technology is at the heart of most smartphones and smart devices worldwide.

But there were concerns when the Cambridge-based designer – which licenses its tech to the likes of Apple, Samsung and Huawei – accepted the offer from Nvidia, a US graphics chip specialist.

In January, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) announced it was looking into the deal amid worries it could lead Arm to withdraw, raise prices or reduce the quality of its services to Nvidia’s rivals.

Mr Dowden has now ordered it to begin a “phase one” investigation, which will decide whether a full “phase two” investigation is needed that could lead to the deal being blocked.

A spokesperson for Nvidia said: “We do not believe that this transaction poses any material national security issues.

“We will continue to work closely with the British authorities, as we have done since the announcement of this deal.”

Last year, more than 2,000 business leaders signed an open letter calling on the prime minister to stop the merger, saying UK jobs and influence could be lost.

Nvidia has promised to keep Arm based in the UK, to hire more staff, and to retain its brand.

It said that the deal would create “the premier computing company for the age of artificial intelligence”.

Nvidia could face barriers from other regulators around the world.

China, in particular, has already made clear that it is not happy about a deal which gives so much power to an American giant at a time when the US has sought to deny Chinese firms access to chip technology.

The CMA will have until 30 July to submit its findings to the digital secretary.

When Arm was sold to Japan’s SoftBank just after the 2016 EU referendum, the government celebrated the deal as a vote of confidence in the UK. Some had misgivings about what they saw as the jewel in the crown of 21st Century British technology falling into foreign hands, but guarantees that research and development would be strengthened in Cambridge seemed to allay ministers’ concerns.

Then when SoftBank sold Arm on to the American chip giant Nvidia last year, there were even louder complaints from the likes of Hermann Hauser who had been instrumental in the founding of the company more than 30 years ago. But it seemed there was even less likelihood of an intervention – what business of the Competition and Markets Authority was a deal between a Japanese and an American company?

But much has changed since 2016. Arm being bought by Nvidia is, it appears, a national security concern now in a way that the Softbank deal was not. Why? Well the vital importance of the semiconductor industry has become clear in recent months, with chips at the centre of a US-China trade war and chip shortages halting production at car plants.

There has also been a major shift in the UK’s attitude towards industrial policy. After three decades of a laissez-faire approach from both Conservative and Labour governments there’s a new willingness to intervene – witness the move to spend taxpayers’ money on a controlling stake in the failing satellite business OneWeb.

With other governments and regulators around the world not convinced that Nvidia owning Arm will be good for competition in the chip industry, it is far from certain that this deal will go through.

Amazon: How one cancer patients story helps explain the Alabama union vote

Carla Johnson turned 45 on Tuesday, a milestone she thought she might not reach.

On 12 July, she walked up to a manager at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, and said she felt unwell.

Shortly afterwards, she had a seizure on the floor. She was rushed to hospital and diagnosed with brain cancer.

She’s exactly the type of person you might expect to have supported a recent vote to create the first trade union of Amazon workers, in order to safeguard her job post-surgery.

But despite having been in a union in her previous career, she was one of a majority of employees – two-to-one, in fact – to vote the proposal down.

“Amazon has been a godsend for me,” she says.

Carla was a teacher for 14 years in Birmingham, Alabama. She taught 12 and 13-year-old children science.

In 2019 she decided to work for a contractor – preparing students for exams. Then the pandemic hit. With pupils no longer in school, the work dried up.

She looked around for other jobs and found a company that was actually hiring – Amazon. Her first shift was in May.

“I first started out packing. Depending on the item, I would pack it in the box, give it an address and put it on a conveyor belt to be shipped out to the customers. It wasn’t anything that was hard.”

Then one Sunday in July her world fell apart. After her seizure, she remembers telling the paramedics to ring her mum, but little else.

She had surgery to remove a brain tumour, and chemotherapy. Her treatment has cost around $170,000 (£123,000) so far. She says she would never have been able to pay without insurance.

To understand labour relations in the US is impossible without looking at healthcare.

A job isn’t just a pay cheque, it’s a ticket to a longer, healthier life – for workers and their families.

Crucial then to Amazon’s strategy to win a union vote was its healthcare plan for workers. “Starting pay of at least $15 per hour and comprehensive healthcare from day one” was the oft-said message.

Amazon’s tactics had a darker side though. The union wanted to talk about excessive workload, bathroom breaks and pay. Amazon pushed the narrative that the union might take away worker benefits, including healthcare.

Workers were bombarded with messages, including texts, which claimed workers’ benefits might be bargained away by the union.

“You may end up with more, the same, or less” is the message from a union info-website set up by Amazon.

In practice, it would be highly unusual for a union to negotiate away existing perks – and of course it would be Amazon taking away the benefits.

“The only way that happens is if the employer decides to take them away. The union’s not going to argue: ‘Let’s cut benefits for the workers'” says Stuart Appelbaum, head of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union that is pushing for Amazon workers to unionise.

Mr Appelbaum is angry. He believes Amazon played dirty – that the messaging given to Amazon workers at “union education meetings” for example, known by the union as “captive audience meetings”, was misinformation dressed up as fact.

The Amazon centre itself was cloaked in anti-union messaging – in the bathrooms, the break rooms and the entrance, for example.

Darryl Richardson voted for the union. But while trying to persuade others, he realised Amazon’s messaging was working: “They were scared that healthcare was going to be taken away. That’s why a lot of them voted “no” against the union. We got the outcome we have now because they threatened them, that benefits and wages were going to drop.”

Darryl himself had been laid off from his job in a car plant during the pandemic. He’s thankful for the job he has and doesn’t want to leave. But he believes Amazon’s characterisation of the union was inaccurate – particularly when it came to wages and healthcare.

Another area of controversy were union subs, or dues. Critics say that much of Amazon’s narrative was based around the idea that workers would have to pay the union money. However, Alabama is a Right To Work state. No worker has to pay subs. So did Amazon break the law in their messaging?

“It’s not clear” says Prof John Logan, a labour expert at San Francisco State University.

“They are very skilled in operating in the grey areas, that’s why they’re so effective. You know some of what they say is clearly legal. Other things are kind of pushing the boundaries of the law – and the weakness of the law.”

Amazon says: “It was important that all employees understood the facts of joining a union… If the union vote passed, it would impact everyone at the site and it’s important all associates understood what that meant for them”.

But whether the messaging was on the right side of the law or not, one thing was overlooked by many observers who thought the union could win.

The pandemic has caused unemployment which has disproportionately affected black communities.

Around 85% of the workers at Amazon’s warehouse in Bessemer are black.

And that means this was a workforce acutely sensitive to arguments around pay, benefits and the future of their jobs.

The union argues that Amazon’s tactics amount to “intimidation” of workers and are mounting a legal challenge. Amazon denies the allegations.

“Our employees heard far more anti-Amazon messages from the union, policymakers, and media outlets than they heard from us”, said a spokesperson.

Carla started working again at Amazon in November. “I felt the things the union were offering, I was already getting,” she says.

She spent her birthday having a spa day, and then watched her youngest son play baseball. She is now in remission, and firmly believes she wouldn’t be alive if she hadn’t been working for an employer with good healthcare. She may well be right.

And as for unions? Well, union membership has been falling since the 1980s. Only 6% of Americans working in the private sector are members of a union.

And unless unions can find a way of convincing people like Carla that they can make a positive impact on healthcare, benefits and wages, that’s not going to change.

James Clayton is the BBC’s North America technology reporter based in San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter @jamesclayton5.