Retail sales bounce back as British shoppers return to the high street


Retail sales last month rose 3.7 per cent compared with February of 2016, the Office for National Statistics said, and were up 1.4 per cent on January’s sales, the Telegraph reports.

Consumer spending has driven the economy in recent months so analysts were worried that poor retail sales in December and January could be a sign of slowing growth.

Added together, sales for the three months to February recorded their biggest fall in almost seven years.

But the pick-up in February itself may ease some of the fears that the surge in household spending was coming to an end.

Prices have started to rise more quickly than wages, however, so the risk of a slowdown still exists.

Rising prices are particularly clear on the petrol forecourt. Drivers bought exactly the same amount of fuel in February 2017 as they did a year earlier, but the amount they spent rose by 1.7 per cent as the higher price of crude oil pushed up the cost of a tank of petrol.

In terms of other spending, households bought slightly more food – by quantity, sales rose 0.6pc on the year with shoppers spending £2.9bn per week. Inflation is creeping back into the groceries market, after two and a half years of price declines caused in part by a fiercely competitive war between the supermarkets.

Clothing sales rose 4.5 per cent, hitting £0.7bn per week.

At the same time the Confederation of British Industry’s survey of retailers showed sales rising at a steady pace in March.

Sales were stronger than expected and businesses said they anticipate a further pick-up in growth next month.

Paul Hollingsworth at Capital Economics said the rise in spending “will provide some reassurance that higher inflation has not brought growth in consumer spending to a halt” though he does not expect retail sales growth to return to the rapid levels seen last year.

“With credit conditions remaining supportive, and consumers’ confidence in the outlook for their own finances still quite strong, we expect overall household spending to slow this year, rather than collapse outright,” he said.

This will still have a knock-on effect on the rest of the economy.

“The economy’s persistent resilience since last June’s Brexit vote has been largely built on consumers keeping on spending,” said Howard Archer, chief UK and European economist at IHS Markit.

“With consumers now seemingly moderating their spending, the long anticipated slowdown in the economy looks set to materialise unless other sectors can make significantly increased contributions.”