April showers have rained on retail's parade somewhat. Between the unseasonably cold weather, supermarket price wars and the continuing lack of consumer confidence, price tags in high street stores rose at their slowest rate in three and a half years last month. The last time monthly sales fell at a faster pace was in April last year, when they dropped 3.3% during a particularly rain-soaked month.
The BRC's research shows that food prices fell 0.4% in April, mainly due to supermarket promotions. The launch of Tesco's 'price promise', which matches both branded and non-branded food against its rivals, has sent prices plummeting. Sainsbury's has now complained to the Advertising Standards Authority, claiming that the campaign is 'unfair'.
Non-food prices have also slumped, falling 1.1% compared with March. No one was interested in buying summer dresses or flipflops while the mercury refused to rise much above 15 degress. As a result prices on all clothing and footwear were down 2.5% compared with March, and down 4.7% on the same month last year.
DIY and gardening centres were also impacted by the cold weather, with gardeners delaying purchases of compost and trowels during the Easter weekend, when rain marred the holiday. The four-day weekend is traditionally the busiest time of year for retailers such as B&Q and Homebase but hardware, gardening and DIY prices in fact fell 0.7% on March. However, they were up by 0.2% on last year.
The contraction takes prices to their lowest levels since November 2009.
However, BRC director-general Helen Dickinson insists that things aren't as bad as they seem for the UK high street. Looking at the quarter as a whole, she says, underlying sales between February and April are actually up 0.9% on a year earlier. 'On the surface these are really poor figures, but they're hiding a respectable month,' she explains. 'The fact that the boost from Easter didn't fall in April this year hit food sales in particular. But, taking away the Easter distortion, this was actually a better month than March, especially for non-food sales.'
A silver lining to the raincloud over retail...