Beast from the East deterred shoppers from the high street in March


The Beast from the East kept shoppers away from stores in March as people huddled in the warmth of their homes amid the big freeze, figures show.

A report from the British Retail Consortium (BRC) and KPMG, covering the final days of February to the end of March, said the period was volatile as the run-up to Easter helped to offset the impact of the "seemingly endless" cold weather on sales.

It said UK retail sales increased by 1.4% on a like-for-like basis compared with March 2017, when they had decreased 1% from the preceding year.

On a total basis, sales rose 2.3% annually in March, against a decline of 0.2% in March 2017.

Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the BRC, said: "March paints a volatile picture for sales, which experienced peaks and troughs to deliver some modest growth on last year.

"The positive distortion from the timing of Easter pushed sales up by over 15% during the holiday week compared with the rest of the month, only just making up for a sub-zero performance at the start of the month.

"There's no doubt that the Beast from the East and its successor played a significant role in deterring shoppers from making store visits.

"But it didn't dampen consumers' appetites towards food purchases, which saw the anticipated spike from the Easter festivities."

Paul Martin, head of retail at KPMG, said: "March was difficult for large parts of the UK retail industry. Seemingly endless cold weather dissuaded would-be shoppers from the high street and a number of retailers delivered bad news."

The report was released as figures from Barclaycard showed that consumer spending growth slowed as temperatures fell in March, increasing by 2% year on year - the lowest level since April 2016.

It said spending at garden centres plunged by 26.4% annually - the biggest fall since Barclaycard's records on this started in September 2014.

Paul Lockstone, managing director at Barclaycard, said: "The Beast from the East took its toll on the high street in March, keeping shoppers at home and leading to a slowdown in consumer spending."

Barclaycard said in-store spending contracted by 1.9% annually as just over a third (34%) of consumers said the cold weather prompted them to spend less overall on the high street.

As people remained indoors, online spending grew by 11.7%.

Spending on essentials grew more strongly than spending on discretionary luxuries, Barclaycard found.

The strong performance in essentials was bolstered by supermarket spending increasing by 5.1% - the highest level of growth since June 2017, even as petrol spending declined 1.8% year on year.

Bright spots in non-essential spending were restaurants and pubs, up 7.2% and 7.7% annually respectively.

Barclaycard, which surveyed 2,000 people in March as part of its research, found people are feeling more confident about their household finances.

Nearly two-thirds (64%) of people said they are confident in their household finances, up 10 percentage points from the month before and the best reading since October 2017.

The proportion of those confident in the UK economy also increased from 34% in February to 37% in March - a seven-month high.

Mr Lockstone continued: "It seems consumers have become accustomed to adjusting their budget and as a result, are more confident in their own finances.

"While there are bright spots, however, it's important to note that a sense of caution still remains, with many of us hesitant to change our spending patterns no matter what the next few months may bring."