New figures show retail sales bounced back by 2.2% last month as shoppers returned to the high street after January’s wintry weather.
The rise in like-for-like sales marked a welcome rebound on the poor start to 2010 for retailers, with official statistics recently confirming a bigger-than-expected 1.8% drop in January sales.
But the British Retail Consortium (BRC) warned against reading too much into its February figures, which come after a dire February last year when snow saw sales plunge by 1.8%.
Stephen Robertson, director general of the BRC, said: “Despite appearances, these results are not that strong.
“The growth is compared with very weak figures a year ago when February saw the worst of last winter’s weather and this February’s performance was helped by sales postponed from January - particularly sales of non-food items such as homewares and fashion.”
Food sales growth slowed again last month, with many consumers having already stocked up on supplies during the snow in January, according to the BRC.
Non-food sales recovered after taking a hit the month before, while clothing also did well as people got out to the shops again and sought winter warmers.
However, the growth in these sectors was often against very low comparatives from a year earlier.
Mr Robertson said: “Consumer confidence is certainly up on this time last year but, with unemployment rising again, spending plans are falling.
“When the weather-related distortions are stripped away, it’s clear customers are still cautious.”
Many non-food sectors saw double digit growth in sales during the first week of February, following a snowbound January.
Valentine’s Day helped sales of jewellery, fashion accessories and health and beauty.
But strong sales of Valentine’s Day sweets and chocolates did little to boost overall performance for the food industry last month, with sales growth dropping to its lowest level since July 2007.
“Lower food inflation, less need to buy after stocking up in January’s snow and a return to more cautious spending after Christmas all contributed to the slowdown,” said the BRC.
Mail order, online and phone-based sales jumped last month - up 15.5% - as the snow-hit delivery market recovered and with households finally receiving home shopping catalogues that had been held up by the weather.
It was a difficult month for electrical and “big ticket” items amid a general spending cutback after Christmas, while DIY and gardening sales were impacted by the cold.
Howard Archer, economist at IHS Global Insight, said a strong February for retail sales would lift hopes that the economic recovery continued into the first quarter.
But he added: “We continue to suspect that the upside for consumer spending - and hence overall economic growth - will be limited in 2010 as households still face very challenging conditions, notably including high unemployment that is likely to rise further, low earnings growth, high debt levels, and January’s Value-Added Tax (VAT) hike.”