May 24, 2018 / 8:37 AM / a month ago

UK consumers return to shops after snowy start to 2018

LONDON (Reuters) - British retail sales jumped last month by the most in one-and-a-half years, official figures showed on Thursday, suggesting the economy was recovering from a snowy start to the year.

FILE PHOTO: Shoppers walk past House of Fraser on Oxford Street in central London, Britain, April 2, 2018. REUTERS/Hannah McKay/File Photo

The Bank of England is waiting for signs of recovery before it raises interest rates again and sterling was up by half a percent on day against the U.S. dollar after the stronger-than-expected sales figures.

On Wednesday, the pound hit its lowest level of 2018 against the dollar after inflation unexpectedly fell, raising fresh doubts about the timing of the BoE’s next rate hike.

Retail sales volumes rose by 1.6 percent from March, the Office for National Statistics said, well above the median forecast for a monthly 0.7 percent increase in a Reuters poll of economists.

The ONS said warm weather in April brought consumers back into the shops. But it warned that the big picture remained one of subdued spending with sales broadly unchanged over the past six months.

A tourist looks at Candy lollipops on sale in The Tower of London souvenir shop in London, Britain, April 19, 2018. REUTERS/Peter Cziborra

Peter Dixon, an economist with Commerzbank, said the figures were a rare piece of positive news about the economy after the weak start to 2018, although the sales data tends to be volatile.

“These figures show the consumer is not dead and they keep the Bank of England on its toes,” Dixon said. “This is grist for the mill for those think a rate rise is justified sooner rather than later.”

April’s sales pick-up followed a sharp fall of 1.1 percent in March when Britain was still in the grip of unusually cold winter weather.

In the three months to April, sales edged up by 0.1 percent compared with a fall of 0.4 percent in the three months to March, the biggest decline in a year.

British households were hit last year by a combination of rising inflation and weak wage growth. Recent figures have shown a cooling of price growth and a pickup in wages.

But many retailers are struggling as consumers remain wary about spending and online shopping upends the industry.

Marks & Spencer (MKS.L), House of Fraser and New Look among other chains have said they plan to close shops. But clothing retailer Next (NXT.L) said earlier this month that warmer weather in April boosted its sales.

Figures on Wednesday from the Confederation of British Industry showed retail sales picked up moderately in May.

A gauge of inflation used in the retail sales data picked up to 2.2 percent after sinking in March to its lowest since January 2017 at 1.9 percent.

The ONS said retail sales in cash terms grew by 3.5 percent in April in annual terms, up from 3.2 percent in March.

Writing by William Schomberg; Editing by Keith Weir

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