FREEZING temperatures and an early Easter left high streets struggling last month forcing retail sales to slump at the fastest rate for a year.
The timing of Easter and the cold start to the month offset improvements in fashion and beauty.
Like-for-like sales fell 2.2 per cent in April from a year earlier, with the early Easter hitting food sales in particular, the British Retail Consortium (BRC) said yesterday.
But the BRC said that that masked a “respectable” month as spring sunshine midway through April boosted sales of sandals, skirts, shorts and skin care products.
On a rolling three-month basis, which smooths out the timing of Easter, underlying sales between February and April were up 0.9 per cent on a year earlier.
BRC director general Helen Dickinson said: “On the surface these are really poor figures, but they’re hiding another respectable month.
“The fact that the boost from Easter didn’t fall in April this year hit food sales in particular. But, taking away the Easter distortion, this was actually a better month than March, especially for non-food sales.
“Essentially, so far this year, sales growth is a small and tentative step up on where it was in 2012, but when it will take the next step is not clear.”
The last time monthly sales fell at a faster pace was in April 2012, when they slid 3.3 per cent during a rain-soaked month.
Retail sales grew an “encouraging” 1.9 per cent in March, but food sales slumped in April as shoppers cut back after indulging at Easter, making it the second-worst performing category.
The BRC said the weather “blew hot and cold” for footwear, with women’s slippers the most popular seller.
But while the prolonged deep freeze held back fashion sales at the start of the month, the subsequent arrival of warmer weather gave a long-awaited boost to clothing retailers’ spring sales.
Surging demand for women’s clothing prompted some retailers to roll out extra promotions, as demand for blouses, jerseys and summer accessories soared.
Health and beauty was the strongest category, with sales of bronzing and slimming products rising as the sun came out.
Online sales of non-food goods increased 8.3 per cent during the month, although with Easter falling in March that was weaker than the 9 per cent growth seen a year earlier.
The BRC figures echo recent data from the CBI, which showed freezing weather and sluggish consumer spending drove retail sales volumes lower in late March and early April.
Howard Archer, chief UK economist at IHS Global Insight, said: “A serious concern for retailers – and the economy in general – is that consumers will limit their spending and hold back growth prospects over the coming months as their purchasing power is squeezed by higher consumer price inflation and low wage growth.”