Mixed fortunes for UK retailers as sales edge ahead

Picture: Jane Barlow
Picture: Jane Barlow
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The contrasting fortunes of Britain’s retailers were highlighted today after the coldest March in 50 years froze sales of clothing and footwear but boosted demand for food and drink.

The British Retail Consortium (BRC) said sales grew by 1.9 per cent in March on a like-for-like basis, weaker than February’s 2.7 per cent jump but a performance described as “encouraging” given the weather impact.

While clothing and footwear retailers endured a “dismal” month, food sales were up as families treated themselves over Easter and cold weather boosted the appetite for hearty meals.

BRC director general Helen Dickinson said: “Snow and the prolonged cold were not ideal but not a disaster. They brought mixed fortunes for different categories.

“2013 has got off to an encouraging start for the market as a whole. Retailers are now hoping for a boost in consumer confidence and the general mood to lift performance across all, not just some sectors, as we head into the second quarter.

“Getting a bit of sunshine, at long last, might help that along.”

Continued expansion by the retail sector will add to hopes the UK economy managed to eke out growth in the first quarter, thus avoiding a damaging triple-dip recession.

KPMG head of retail, David McCorquodale, said it may be the start of a positive trend for retailers, adding clothing and shoe stores will be “desperate for a change in weather in April”.

The BRC said clothing and footwear were the worst- performing non-food categories in March and the only ones where sales declined, but did not break out specific figures.

Strong sales of slippers, Wellington boots, coats, gloves and knitwear were a rare bright spot. However, the BRC said retailers held off discounting new fashion ranges in the hope that consumers were “postponing rather than cancelling” purchases.

Howard Archer, chief UK economist at forecasting group IHS Global Insight, said: “The concern for retailers – and the economy in general – is that consumers will limit their spending and hold back growth prospects as their purchasing power is squeezed by higher consumer price inflation and muted wage growth.

“However, elevated and recently strongly rising employment offers hope for consumer spending.”