Britain’s retailers have warned that Brexit uncertainty is holding consumers back from making bigger purchases, after a disappointing month for sales in March.
The British Retail Consortium (BRC) and the accountancy firm KPMG said sales growth dropped to 0.5% in the year to March, down from an annual growth of 2.3% a year ago, as consumers held back from spending on big-ticket items.
The BRC said the timing of Easter, on 21 April this year after falling on 1 April in 2018, was likely to have distorted the sales figures, as many shops were yet to experience a rush in sales ahead of the holiday period.
However, average figures spread over the past two years show that sales growth slid to 0.9% a year in March, compared with 1.1% in February, suggesting families reined in their spending last month.
Freezing weather in March last year caused by the “beast from the east” storm also discouraged shoppers from hitting the high street, while temperatures this year have been milder.
Helen Dickinson, the chief executive of the BRC, said: “Retail sales slowed in March, even when the Easter distortions were accounted for, as greater uncertainty caused people to hold off from splashing out.
“Brexit continues to feed the uncertainty among consumers. For the sake of everyone, MPs must rally behind a plan of action that avoids no deal – and quickly – or it will be ordinary families who suffer as a result of higher prices and less choice on the shelves.”
Retailers have warned that a no-deal scenario could lead to shortages of goods in the shops and higher prices for households. Retail sales have, however, been stronger in recent months than expected, in a boon for the economy.
Separate sales figures on Tuesday from Barclaycard, which processes almost half of credit and debit card transactions in Britain, suggest that sales rose by 3.1% a year in March.
Esme Harwood, a director at Barclaycard, said that pubs and restaurants benefited as temperatures rose but warned that Brexit was harming consumer confidence.
The BRC said that shoppers were cautious not to overspend in March amid the failure to break the deadlock in Westminster, with falling sales of bigger-ticket items such as furniture.
However, warmer weather tempting consumers to the high street benefited clothing shops, while jewellery and beauty shops benefited from a rise in spending ahead of Mother’s Day.
Total food sales rose by 1.3% in the three months to March, below the 12-month average of 2%. Susan Barratt, the chief executive of the grocery research firm IGD, said the proportion of shoppers worried about the strength of the economy was relatively unchanged from a year ago.
“For the great majority, it has been food shopping as usual,” she said.