Shoppers eager to hit the high street after being trapped at home by the snow helped retail sales bounce back in January.
A rush to beat the VAT hike on January 4 and the allure of clearance sales boosted non-food sales at the start of the month, but they eased back as consumer caution took hold, the British Retail Consortium (BRC) said.
Like-for-like retail sales were up 2.3% year-on-year in January, the BRC said, the strongest growth since March last year and an improvement on the 0.3% year-on-year decline seen in snow-struck December.
UK retailers had a torrid festive season as Arctic conditions gripped the country, with big players such as Next and HMV reporting a slump in sales.
But the BRC’s January retail sales monitor does not give a complete picture as it compares with a feeble, snow-hit performance last year.
Stephen Robertson, BRC director general, said: “Growth this January was driven by a relatively short but strong burst of non-food buying early in the month.
“Clearance discounts and a last chance to beat the VAT rise got people buying things like furniture and electricals in the first few days.”
He went on: “Later in the month sales of non-food goods slowed, particularly for bigger items, as the reality of worries about jobs and personal finances returned to customers’ minds.”
The BRC data comes a few weeks after official figures revealed a weak services sector, which includes retail, led the economy into an unexpected decline in the final quarter of 2010.
Mr Robertson said improving consumer confidence was essential for turning round the economy.
He said: “A range of pressures is bearing down on customers. As it considers the Budget, the Government must not add any more.”
Internet, mail order and phone sales fell back in January after housebound consumers had turned to non-store means in December. Sales were 12.3% higher than a year ago, less than the 18% rise in December.
Food sales slowed in January as consumers had less need to buy, having stocked up during the snow, the BRC said. Healthy eating items and fruit and vegetables were popular after Christmas.
In clothing, the cold weather helped sales of outerwear, knitwear and hosiery, the BRC said, while childrenswear continued to hold up better than menswear and womenswear.
Sales of electrical goods picked up in the first few days of the month, helped by clearance discounts and some big-ticket purchasing before the VAT increase from 17.5% to 20%.