Retailers’ sales bloom in hot March

Retailers enjoyed a welcome sales boost last month after March’s surprise heatwave caused a surge in demand for footwear and clothing.

Like-for-like sales rose a healthy 1.3 per cent as the balmy weather prompted people to upgrade their wardrobes, with footwear seeing its best sales growth for nearly five years, according to the British Retail Consortium (BRC).

Clothing firms saw their best performance since the frenzy of pre-Christmas special offers, while demand for gardening goods and barbecue food helped overall like-for-like sales hit positive territory for the first time in 2012.

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But the BRC warned the buoyant figures compared to an “exceptionally weak” March the previous year and said the sunshine may have brought sales forward rather than creating a genuine increase.

BRC director general Stephen Robertson said life remained difficult for retailers, who are having to put on more special offers to drum up trade as shoppers battle rising petrol and utility bills.

He added: “The unusually warm weather in March brought some welcome sunshine into the lives of non-food retailers.

“The warmth of March was a help but it will take more than a week of sunshine to transform retailers’ fortunes.”

Helen Dickinson, head of retail at survey partner KPMG, said that while clothes and footwear were boosted by the heatwave, womenswear did not perform as well as ranges for men and children.

She believes this is because women “tightened their purse strings most severely” to help them control household budgets.

The warm weather helped online retailers, who saw sales grow 13.9 per cent, their best performance since December, although this was again compared to a weak showing the previous year.

And health and beauty sales were slightly up, as sales of suncream and fragrances were boosted by the hot weather and Mothering Sunday.

But the market for electrical items remained difficult, as cautious shoppers only bought what was necessary and shied away from ‘big ticket items’ where possible despite demand for the new iPad.

The same trend hit sales of homewares, furniture and floor coverings, which were down on a year ago.

And underlying food sales were flat despite the warm weather driving demand for salads, cider, soft fruits and cold meats and a boost from Mothering Sunday. Shoppers continued to seek out special offers to help them deal with rising prices.

It is hoped the Diamond Jubilee and Olympics later this year will help food retailers, in the same way last year’s royal wedding created an upsurge in demand for organic and locally sourced ranges.