LONDON (Reuters) – British shoppers paused for breath in April after months of strong buying, according to official data that showed continued underlying strength of consumer spending during the Brexit crisis.
Monthly retail sales volumes were flat last month, the Office for National Statistics said, compared with a median forecast for a 0.3% decline in a Reuters poll of economists.
But during the three months to April sales increased 1.8%, the fastest growth by this measure since August last year.
Consumer spending has been a relative bright spot for the British economy, contrasting with businesses cutting on investment throughout last year and slower global growth.
Britain was originally due to leave the European Union on March 29 but that deadline was pushed back to Oct. 31 as Prime Minister Theresa May failed to break an impasse in parliament on the terms of Brexit.
“Retail growth was strong in the three months to April with a record quarter for the online sector, driven mainly by clothing purchases, with warmer weather boosting sales,” ONS statistician Rhian Murphy said.
“Elsewhere, department stores continued to see their sales fall.”
Compared with April 2018, sales were up by 5.2% after a 6.7% annual rise in March, better than expected in the Reuters poll.
Low inflation, a steady rise in wages and the lowest unemployment since 1975 have boosted household incomes over the past year, though after inflation wages are still below their peak before the financial crisis.
Surveys from the British Retail Consortium and payments company Barclaycard suggested Britons splashed out in bars and restaurants at the expense of retailers in the Easter holidays last month.
Retailers themselves have reported mixed fortunes this month.
Morrisons, Britain’s No. 4 grocer, missed quarterly growth forecasts, blaming political and economic uncertainty and No. 3 player Asda warned of an “increasingly challenging backdrop”. However, discounter B&M said it enjoyed it best ever Easter trading season.
(Reporting by William Schomberg and Andy Bruce)