The Office for National Statistics (ONS) recorded a 1.6% rise in sales volumes during April compared to March – a rate that smashed economists’ expectations but was part-driven by fuel sales recovering from the snow disruption.
Nevertheless, the performance represented some hope for retailers – and the economy – that February and March proved something of a blip for the shopping sector because of the poor weather.
Previous industry statisticshad suggested sales slumped at their fastest pace for more than two decades in April.
A string of big name retailers have encountered trouble this year amid a spending slowdown blamed on wage growth failing to keep pace with price increases for the space of a year.
But it is expected that because that squeeze on household budgets has now disappeared, technically at least as salaries grow above the rate of inflation again, spending will cautiously start to pick up.
In its update on Thursday, the ONS said the picture for spending over the past six months was broadly flat.
It goes some way to explain why the likes of M&S, New Look, House of Fraser, Mothercare and Carpetright are planning to close stores following the demise of chains such as Toys R Us UK and Maplin.
They are also battling heavy costs and suffering stiff competition online.
On Thursday, Kingfisher said like-for-like sales at its B&Q brand fell 9% in the first quarter of the year.
It put most of the blame on the weather.
Its biggest competitor, Homebase, is having even bigger problems.
Sky News reported on Wednesday that its Australian owner Wesfarmers was preparing to announce the loss-making chain’s sale by the end of the week.
The ONS figures did provide support for the under-fire pound – which climbed to $1.34 versus the dollar and was up almost a cent on values 24 hours earlier.
That was credited to hopes the economy is not as fundamentally weak as the 0.1% growth registered between January and March would suggest and left the prospect of a summer interest rate rise in sight.
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Same old message from M&S – but is there room for optimism this time?
Ranko Berich, head of market analysis at Monex Europe, said: “Today’s figures are reassuring to a limited extent as they show UK consumers remain willing to spend, but the overall outlook for consumer spending remains at best tepid.
“Recent survey data showed employment growth is slowing and higher petrol prices will eventually bite into discretionary spending, so it’s unlikely the strong growth seen in April will continue for much longer.”