Retail sales boosted by milder weather in March

(c) Sky News 2019: <a href="">Retail sales boosted by milder weather in March</a>

British shops have benefited from a milder March in comparison with last year's "Beast from the East", according to new figures.

Retail sales in March were up by an estimated 6.7% compared with the same time last year, the Office for National Statistic said.

Only department stores saw a decrease, with sales down 0.3%.

Online sales remained strong, increasing 18.6% in March, up from the 18.1% reported the previous month.

Also in monthly terms, sales were up 1.1% compared to February - the third consecutive increase and above a Reuters poll which forecast a 0.3% decline.

In the first three months of 2019, sales grew by 1.6% compared with the previous three months, the strongest increase since August 2018.

The ONS figures covered the period from 24 February to 30 March.

Rhian Murphy, ONS head of retail sales, said: "March's mild weather boosted sales, with food shops also recovering after a weak February."

Ed Monk, associate director for personal investing at Fidelity International, said: "Even accounting for the Beast from the East, which kept shoppers at home a year ago, today's retail sales data show households willing to spend more.

"That reflects a slow recovery from a decade-long wage squeeze and, perhaps, a willingness to look through the apparently never-ending uncertainty that is Brexit."

George Charles, spokesman for money-saving website Money Saving Heroes, said the bright figures did not necessarily mean a "second lease of life for the high street".

He added: "It is hard to see anything other than a grim future for the old way of shopping, especially considering big players like Debenhams are in huge financial troubles and formerly successful periods of selling, like Christmas, are failing in comparison to previous years."

Consumer spending has been the main support for Britain's sluggish economy in the past few years.

However, wages after inflation are still well below their pre-financial crisis peak, raising questions about how long consumers can continue to support the economy.

Jeremy Thomson-Cook, an economist at currency exchange firm WorldFirst, warned: "Credit card defaults in the UK have risen significantly in the first quarter and sit at the highest level since 2015, which could threaten the brighter-than-expected retail picture."