YEAR-on-year growth in the value of UK retail sales slowed sharply in February to its weakest pace since November 2011, excluding distortions, figures from the British Retail Consortium reveal.
The year-on-year pace of growth in retail sales value slowed to just 0.7% in February, from 5.4% in January, according to the latest BRC monthly monitor published today.
The BRC highlighted the fact that year-on-year sales growth in January, also stripping out distortions in the survey relating to the timing of Easter, had been the strongest since December 2009.
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A BRC spokesman pointed out consumers had taken advantage of discounting in January to buy the likes of electrical goods.
But the BRC, while declaring a slowdown in year-on-year sales growth in February was to be expected given the strength of trading in January, also believed the latest figures reflected considerable challenges being faced by UK consumers and retailers.
The BRC flagged strong sales of home accessories, and furniture and flooring in February. This chimes with a stronger housing market. Inflating the housing market has been a key plank of the Coalition Government's economic strategy in recent times.
However, food sales remained weak in February. This may reflect efforts by consumers to rein in spending, with inflation continuing to outstrip pay growth.
There was a mixed picture in the electrical and electronic goods category in February, although demand for televisions remained strong.
The value of online sales of non-food goods in February was up by 14.3% on the same month of last year, the survey showed.
The BRC declared that poor weather in February probably had an effect on high street trading, but signalled its belief that this would not have been the main factor in the slowdown in year-on-year growth in retail sales.
It observed that flooding had mainly affected south-west England, and that major UK cities had not been hit. But it cited a general impact from heavy rain in February on consumers' appetite to go out shopping.
Helen Dickinson, BRC director-general, noted sales in February were being compared with a relatively strong prior-year level.
In February 2013, the value of UK retail sales had been up 4.4% on the same month of 2012.
Ms Dickinson said: "Our sales figures for February show a slower pace of growth in the retail industry than in previous months, underlining that the consumer-led recovery is still developing.
"However, this slower growth might have been expected in some ways, given the record sales figures we saw in January, and the strong results that we are comparing against from last year."
She added: "Once again, furniture and home accessories were the best-performing categories. This further illustrates the impact of the continued recovery in the housing market on the wider economy. On the other hand, food sales continued to stay relatively flat.
"Overall, these figures reflect the considerable challenges still faced by consumers and retailers in the UK. It remains to be seen how the industry will fare over 2014."
David McCorquodale, Edinburgh-based head of accountancy firm and BRC survey sponsor KPMG's UK retail sector practice, said: "February saw a hiatus on the high street, with online sales soaring while in-store sales stalled. There's no doubt inclement weather exacerbated this trend, but it certainly underscores the importance of having a sophisticated online operation."
He added: "The grocery sector remains fiercely competitive. February's figures were impacted by the discounting campaigns launched by the value grocers.
"Overall sales were pretty flat, which serves as a reminder that recovery is far from certain."
The Scottish Retail Consortium said last month that the value of retail sales north of the Border in January had been up by 4.3% on the same month of last year.
This represented a significant improvement from a 1.1% year-on-year fall in the value of Scottish retail sales in December.
However, while much more solid, the January figures from the SRC continued the recent pattern of the year-on-year movement in retail sales value in Scotland being weaker than that in the UK as a whole.
Scottish retail sales figures for February will be published by the SRC next week.