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UK retail sales stronger than expected in February

[LONDON] British retail sales rose more strongly than expected in February, helped by last year's recovery in the housing market which boosted furniture purchases and by growth in sales in all other sectors too.

Compared with February last year, sales volumes rose 5.7 per cent, the Office for National Statistics said in a set of figures which add to signs that Britain's economy is continuing to grow strongly ahead of national elections on May 7.

Retail sales rose 0.7 per cent from January, the ONS said.

A 0.9 per cent monthly increase in sales in non-specialized stores reflected higher furniture purchases which often lag a recovery in home sales, the ONS said.

Economists had expected a rise of 0.4 per cent on the month and an increase of 4.7 per cent on the year, adding to strong growth in sales at the end of last year.

In the three months to February, a smoother reading than the often volatile monthly changes, sales rose 2.0 per cent, slowing from the previous month which reflected a slowdown in sales in January.

Britain's economic recovery since mid-2013 has relied heavily on consumer spending.

Wages are recovering after falling in real terms for most of the period since the financial crisis, and inflation in February fell to zero, helped by lower fuel costs which have put more money in the pockets of households.

Prices in stores fell by 3.6 per cent in February, the biggest year-on-year fall since 1997 when records began, pushed down by lower fuel and food prices, the ONS said.

A previously published survey from the British Retail Consortium, an industry group, showed growth in high-street spending maintained its pace in February.

But a separate survey by the Confederation of British Industry had shown sales almost ground to a halt in the early part of last month.

Data for January was revised to show monthly growth in sales volumes of 0.1 per cent, compared with an original reading that showed a 0.3 per cent fall.

The retail sector accounts for nearly 6 per cent of the British economy.