UK retail sales rose 3.6 per cent in March, against a 1.9 per cent decline in March 2011.
Stephen Robertson, director general of the British Retail Consortium, said: “The unusually warm weather in March brought some welcome sunshine into the lives of non-food retailers.
“The early signs of summer got people buying clothes and shoes for the new season.”
Gardening items and outdoor leisure also saw a lift as people took advantage of the sunshine.
On a like-for-like basis, UK retail sales rose 1.3 per cent last month. In March 2011, they fell by 3.5 per cent.
The BRC said the changing timing of Easter always makes analysis difficult in March and April.
Easter fell in April in 2012 and 2011, but it was in March in 2010, which makes March 2011 look weaker.
“It’s worth remembering the sales comparison is against the weakest month of last year, largely caused by the movement of Easter in the calendar,” said Mr Robertson.
“We’ll have to see whether this is additional spending or just shopping which has happened earlier than usual.
“Food sales growth continues to be largely underpinned by food inflation rather than by customers buying more.”
He added that the overall retail environment is still difficult.
“Discounting remains a key tactic for retailers trying to encourage consumers to spend, particularly on big indoor items. People are still struggling to balance household budgets against expensive fuel and utilities.
“The warmth of March was a help but it will take more than a week of sunshine to transform retailers’ fortunes,” he said.
Helen Dickinson, head of retail at KPMG, said the clothing sector as a whole benefited from the warm March weather, but she noted that female shoppers are cutting back the most with a focus on cheaper goods to reduce the household budget.
“This buying behaviour saw women’s clothing perform less strongly than men’s and childrenswear,” she said. “Home accessories and textiles also had a poor month.”
Ms Dickinson added that increases in food prices, rather than volumes, were a factor behind the uplift in last month’s figures.
“Rising petrol prices continued to drive up transport and manufacturing costs, causing food prices to increase each month since the start of the year,” she said.
“Retailers are hoping that Easter provided a much needed boost, but many are not holding their breath and continue to focus on controlling margins and costs.”
Joanne Denney-Finch, chief executive of research company IGD, said Mothering Sunday provided a mid-month boost to food and grocery sales in March.
“Easter now marks the start of a unique succession of events in the coming months, including the Diamond Jubilee and Olympics,” she said. “The British love a reason to celebrate and our ShopperVista research shows many shoppers enjoy themed promotions and in-store activities.”
She added that while shoppers remain sensitive to inflationary pressures, the Diamond Jubilee and London 2012 present “great short-term opportunities”.
“During last year’s Royal Wedding, we observed shoppers were more interested in a range of foods, including higher quality lines and organic groceries as well as locally sourced or British goods,” she said.
In food and drink, the BRC said the unusually warm sunny weather drove sales of salads, soft fruit, ice cream, cider, cold meats and barbecue products.
Prepared salads and fruit were popular with people wanting to spend time outdoors rather than in the kitchen. Price-conscious shoppers continued to look for value and special offers with promotions on Easter eggs doing well.
Mothering Sunday boosted confectionery, gift food and sparkling wines.
In clothing, the unusually warm weather provided a good boost to sales after two weak months. Apart from December’s clearance-driven boost, sales growth was the best since April 2011.
Menswear and childrenswear continued to outperform womenswear.
New spring/ summer and transitional ranges did well while casual trousers, shorts, tops, skirts and dresses were popular.
Knitwear and outerwear proved more difficult.