Retailers fear snow will take shine off positive start to year

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BRITAIN’S under-pressure retailers enjoyed a surprisingly robust start to the year before snowstorms brought much of the country to a standstill, according to the latest snapshot on the health of the sector.

The CBI’s distributive trades survey said a balance of 17 per cent of retailers reported ­improved sales volumes in the first two weeks of January, beating expectations for a rise of 10 per cent, but it is feared the month as a whole will have suffered because of adverse weather in recent days.

Markit chief economist Chris Williamson warned the survey painted an “overly rosy view” of the start of the year, with the data collected before the heavy snow arrived.

There has already been a spate of high-profile retail collapses this month, with firms such as Blockbuster, HMV and Jessops calling in administrators.

Asda chief operating officer Judith McKenna, who chairs the CBI panel, warned that retailers were far from out of the woods.

McKenna, who is due to become executive vice-president for strategy and international development at Asda owner Wal-Mart in April, said: “With tough trading conditions and subdued consumer spending adding to the uncertain economic picture, retailers will continue to face tough market conditions in the coming months.”

Grocers recorded their ninth successive month of rising year-on-year sales in January, but clothing sales growth was at its lowest level since last August and there was a weaker picture for sales of shoes and big ticket items, according to the CBI.

Howard Archer, chief UK and European economist at IHS Global, said consumers’ purchasing power had come under renewed pressure from rising inflation after an improvement over the first three quarters of 2012.