March washout sees UK retail sales fall more than expected but Coronation could boost takings

A weather washout led to a fall in UK retail sales last month, official figures have revealed, but analysts pointed to some glimmers of hope on the horizon.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) said UK retail sales volumes dipped 0.9 per cent in March as clothes shops, department stores and garden centres all reported declines. Food sales were also down as rampant food inflation continues to weigh on shopping habits. The decline in overall sales was heavier than expected, with economists predicting a 0.5 per cent decline for the month.

The UK-wide figures come just days after it emerged that Scotland’s retail sector was facing a “very difficult” summer after sales largely flatlined last month. The Scottish Retail Consortium said total sales, measured by value rather than volume, grew by 8.8 per cent last month, compared with March 2022. This was just below the three-month average increase of 9 per cent but once adjusted for inflation, last month’s year-on-year change was -0.1 per cent.

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Darren Morgan, ONS director of economic statistics, said: “Retail fell sharply in March as poor weather impacted on sales across almost all sectors. However, the broader trend is less subdued as a strong performance from retailers in January and February means the three-month picture shows positive growth for the first time since August 2021.”

Danni Hewson, head of financial analysis at investment platform AJ Bell, noted: “March seems to have fallen in between two big spending moments; lovers appear to have splurged over Valentine’s Day and families might well have been feathering the nest ready for the long, late Easter holidays leaving little spare cash left over. The consumer has been resilient and resourceful, but it feels like we are at a tipping point. For some households, things haven’t been as bad as the doomsday scenarios being painted last year, for others every price rise rubs salt in raw wounds. Overall inflation is falling and there’s every indication it will keep heading in the right direction.”

Lynda Petherick, head of retail at Accenture in the UK & Ireland, added: “Many retailers will be hoping that the Easter trading period and upcoming Coronation will be another reason to celebrate.”

Non-food retailers reported a 1.3 per cent fall in March, swinging sharply from a 2.4 per cent increase in February as retailers said “poor weather conditions throughout most of March affected sales”. The ONS revealed department stores saw volumes drop by 3.2 per cent for the month, while clothing shops reported a 1.7 per cent fall. Meanwhile, sales at food shops dropped by 0.7 per cent, which the ONS said “may have been affected by shortages” of some food products.

The figures showed that the amount of food bought by shoppers is 3 per cent lower than before the pandemic hit in February 2020. However, the amount of money being spent by shoppers is significantly higher due to soaring food inflation. Earlier this week, official figures showed food inflation hit a 45-year-high of 19.1 per cent last month, compared with a year earlier.



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