Samuel Tombs, UK economist at consultancy Capital Economics, noted that the bulk of the seasonally-adjusted 1.4% rise in volumes in May was the result of a return of clothing and fuel sales to more normal levels last month after a sharp slide in April.
Clothing sales were hit by grim weather in April. Some fuel purchases were brought forward from April to March because of ultimately unrealised fears of a tanker drivers' strike and associated panic buying of petrol and diesel.
Sales volumes in the clothing, footwear and textiles category surged by 3.4% month-on-month in May. Demand for summer clothing would almost certainly have been boosted by glorious weather in late May, and the month-on-month increase in this category was the sharpest since April 2011.
Given the tumble in sales in April, and ongoing weak consumer confidence amid public spending cuts, the rebound in sales volumes in May did little to alleviate fears that the recession-mired UK economy could notch up a third consecutive quarter of contraction in the three months to June. UK gross domestic product fell by 0.3% in both the fourth quarter of last year and the opening three months of 2012.
Strathclyde University's Fraser of Allander Institute declared this week that the Coalition Government's fiscal austerity programme was the "main culprit" for the renewed recession in the UK.
Howard Archer, chief UK economist at consultancy IHS Global Insight, said: "Given the key role of consumer spending, decent retail sales growth in May gives a limited lift to recent rapidly dwindling hopes that the economy can avoid further contraction in the second quarter. However, April's sharp drop in retail sales volumes means that there is still a very real risk that they will have contracted overall in the second quarter.
"In fact, as things stand, it will need retail sales growth of around 1% month-on-month in June to prevent overall contraction in the second quarter."
Mr Tombs calculated sales volumes "will need to increase by at least 1% or so in June in order to prevent the sector from making a negative contribution" to the overall movement in GDP in the second quarter.
He said: "Retail sales supported growth in Q1, so other sectors will need to post a stronger performance simply to prevent the overall economy from contracting at a faster rate in Q2."
Mr Tombs added: "May's strong rise in the official measure of retail sales largely reflected the fading of the temporary factors that depressed spending in April, and so should not be interpreted as a sign that consumers have materially loosened their purse strings."
Mr Archer said: "Despite the pick-up in retail sales in May, the overall impression remains that consumers are cautious in their spending and need a boost such as extended good weather, which they certainly are not getting in June, or a major event to significantly step up their spending.
"This is hardly surprising given the pressures that consumers are currently facing, particularly in terms of extended squeezed purchasing power. The uncertain and worrying economic outlook is also a cause for spending caution among consumers."