April retail sales were 6.3% higher than this time last year, the British Retail Consortium said today. That’s the fastest rate of growth for three years, and it’s all the more marked given the feeble sales growth of the two previous months (0.1% in February, and 0.6% in March) – encouraging the view that the UK economy might be starting to drag its way out of recession. But the Easter sun may have led to a false dawn - as unemployment rises over the coming year, we’re unlikely to see a recovery just yet…
April was certainly a good month for retailers, judging by today’s figures. Even on a like-for-like basis, sales were up 4.6% - only the third time we’ve seen this figure rise in the last 14 months, which tells you all you need to know about the high street’s recent plight. The BRC reports that the Easter sunshine helped seasonal items like gardening equipment and summer clothes fly off the shelves. In fact, there are tentative signs that people are finally starting to shell out on non-food items again; sales were down just 0.9% last quarter, after falling over 5% in the last quarter of 2009.
There was more good cheer this morning from the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors, which reports that activity in the housing market is starting to pick up a bit. The balance of its members reporting a rise in new buyer enquiries jumped from 32% in March to 41% last month – the highest level in a decade. Clearly house prices are starting to look attractive to those with money to spend; and sure enough, the average number of properties sold per surveyor rose to 10.6 last quarter, up from 9.7.
So on the bright side, there are definitely some green shoots starting to appear. ECB President Jean-Claude Trichet suggested yesterday that the world economy was at a turning point – and these figures do suggest that the UK economy is slowly starting to stabilise (or at least, slowing its rate of decline, as the OECD thinks). And if nothing else, they prove that it’ll take more than a pesky recession to stop Brits shopping.
That said, there was always likely to be a big year-on-year rise this April – because (unlike last year) it included the Easter weekend. And the fact that it was actually sunny for once made this effect even more pronounced. So we should probably echo the BRC’s caution and not read too much into this – if there are more job losses this year, as there surely will be, shelling out for a new lawnmower and a sarong will be pretty low down the list of priorities.
In today's bulletin:
Recovery hopes surge as Easter eggs on retail sales
Businesses landed with higher minimum wage
Enterprise Inns spends millions propping up its own bars
Why UK shoppers still don't trust the internet
Editor's blog: MP expenses are a dangerous distraction