UK retail sales stall in April

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Scottish shops are outperforming the rest of the UK

Retail sales stalled in April, but warmer weather boosted sales of clothing, which offset falls in other areas of spending.

The Office for National Statistics said sales in April were flat on March, and higher than the 0.3% fall expected.

In the three months to April, sales increased by 1.8%, with a record quarter for the online sector.

ONS statistician Rhian Murphy said three-month growth was strong, with warmer weather boosting sales.

The data illustrated the changes taking place on the High Street.

Sales from online-only retailers rose 9.4% over the three-month period – the highest three-month-on-three-month growth rate since records began, the ONS said, boosted by promotions and sales.

“Elsewhere, department stores continued to see their sales fall,” Ms Murphy said.

Department store sales fell by 0.5% and those in household goods stores declined by 2.9%.

Compared with a year earlier, sales were up by 5.2% after a 6.7% annual rise in March.

The ONS said anecdotal evidence from retailers suggested warm weather in April boosted sales over the period, which included Easter, while economists said the figures showed Brexit was not having an impact on spending.

“April’s retail sales figures are a timely reminder that political uncertainty is having no discernible impact on households’ overall spending. The stability of volumes in April is a good result, following recent strong gain,” said Samuel Tombs, chief UK economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics.

“Admittedly, warmer-than-usual weather – average temperatures were 1.1C above their 1970-to-2018 April average – probably temporarily stimulated clothing sales,” he added.

Duncan Brewer, retail partner at management consultants Oliver Wyman, said sales were boosted “as consumers went out and spent money over the sunny holiday period”.

But, he said, that contrasted to “continued bad news from our ailing High Streets, which continue to be challenged by the shift to online. Retail used to be simple: consumers went to stores, browsed products, then bought what they wanted”.

Consumer spending helped drive the economy in the first quarter of the year and economists look to the retail sales figures as one potential gauge for the impact on economic growth.

Ruth Gregory, senior UK economist at Capital Economics, said sales volumes might have been weaker if retailers had not discounted over the Easter period and that growth could slow in the second quarter as household spending eased.

“And with other parts of the economy in no position to compensate, this supports our view that growth will moderate a little in [the second quarter] and remain sluggish for the rest of the year,” she said.

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