UK retailers report higher spending in March - BRC

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The coronavirus disease (COVID-19) restrictions ease, in London

LONDON (Reuters) - British high street retailers reported higher spending in March compared with both a year earlier and before the start of the coronavirus pandemic, ahead of a reopening of non-essential stores in April.

The British Retail Consortium said total sales were 8.3% higher than in March 2019 and 13.9% higher than in March 2020, when the start of the COVID-19 lockdown stymied spending on non-essentials.

The BRC said comparisons with March 2019 gave a better sense of trends in the sector than year-on-year sales growth.

"March last year was a real anomaly and unlike anything we have seen before, with queues of consumers panic buying items and images of empty shelves across our media," said Paul Martin, head of UK retail at accountancy firm KPMG, which sponsors the survey.

BRC chief executive Helen Dickinson said the higher spending this year largely reflected increased purchases of groceries as Britons continued to spend more time at home, with other categories such as clothing and beauty products in decline.

However, April may bring a turn-around after shops selling 'non-essential' goods were allowed to reopen in England on Monday, with some stores such as discount clothing chain Primark seeing long queues of shoppers.

Like-for-like sales growth - a measure which adjusts for changes in floor space and is preferred by some analysts - showed that sales in March were 8.4% higher than in March 2019 and 20.3% greater than in March 2020.

Payment processor Barclaycard - which declined to provide its usual annual spending change data - said debit and card spending in March was 7.2% lower than in March 2019.

(Reporting by David Milliken; editing by Jane Wardell)