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Rise in fuel sales helps keep retail sector flat in March

Retailers reported that more people were visiting their petrol forecourts across the country, leading to the highest level of automotive fuel sales since May 2022, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) said. Automotive fuel sales volumes were up 3.2%.

The latest ONS data showed that sales growth was recorded at 0.0% across the retail sector, down from 0.1% growth in February. The statisticians have revised February’s retail sales volumes reading from an earlier estimate of 0.0%.

In the first three months of 2024, retail sales volumes rose 1.9%, compared with the last quarter of 2023.

“Retail sales registered no growth in March,” ONS senior statistician Heather Bovill said.

“Hardware stores, furniture shops, petrol stations and clothing stores all reported a rise in sales. However, these gains were offset by falling food sales, and in department stores where retailers say higher prices hit trading.”

“Looking at the longer-term picture, across the latest three months retail sales increased after a poor Christmas.”

The ONS said that its data had tracked rises in sales at second-hand goods shops, hardware shops and furniture and clothing stores.

Food stores saw a fall of 0.7% while non-food store sales were up 0.5%. There was a 1.5% drop in sales for non-store retailers, which include online shops and market stalls among others.

Lisa Hooker, an expert at consultancy PwC, warned that the March figures should be “taken with a pinch of salt” because Easter fell earlier than normal this year. The ONS tries to adjust for that.

“While supermarkets benefitted from the earlier Easter, the slighter warmer weather and additional bank holidays encouraged more consumers back to hospitality with stronger restaurant and pub performance,” she said.

“Easter chocolate sales were subdued with the impact of chocolate price inflation and new health regulations meaning promotional displays had to be less prominent in stores.”

She added: “What is clear is that the first quarter of the year has been disappointing for many retailers.

“Lower inflation and the first 2% cut to National Insurance which was felt in January’s pay packets has yet to translate into a sustained recovery in spending.”



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