UK retail sales flatlined in February amid poor weather before the spread of coronavirus was fully felt by high street shops, new figures show.
The Office for National Statistics (ONS) said sales volumes were flat for the month, slowing down from growth in January as troubled high streets continued to stagnate.
The amount spent by shoppers increased by 0.7%, though this also represented a slowdown from the previous month.
Storms throughout February weighed heavily on trading, although some retailers saw the early spread of Covid-19 in China hit their supply chains due to factory closures.
— Office for National Statistics (ONS) (@ONS) March 26, 2020
Rhian Murphy, head of retail sales at the ONS, said: “Retail sales continued to decline in the latest three months due to weak sales across most store types, with February’s bad weather and flooding impacting on footfall.
“A small number of retailers also said that the impact of the coronavirus had affected sales of goods shipped from China.”
The ONS said sales growth was driven by online sales, with non-store retailing reporting a 4.2% increase in volumes in February.
However, poor weather took shoppers away from town centres, with department stores reporting a 3.6% decline for the month.
Food retailers saw sales grow, with volumes increasing by 0.6% for February, though this represented a slowdown from the previous month.
Howard Archer, chief economic adviser at the EY Item Club, said: “This indicates that consumers were being cautious in their spending even before coronavirus started to really take a toll on activity and the economy.
February 0.3% fall in #UK #retail sales volumes indicates consumers remained cautious in their spending even before #coronavirus became a factor – despite the marked pick-up in confidence following December election. Adds to largely lacklustre hard data for #economy in early 2020 https://t.co/tz5Be1qPXJ
— Howard Archer (@HowardArcherUK) March 26, 2020
“Apart from the food sector, the retail picture looks horrible and it will remain so over the next few months at least with most retailers now compulsory closed.
“Online sales will likely come increasingly to the fore but they can only make up a limited amount of the lost business.”
On Wednesday, the CBI’s monthly retail tracker, which considers the first two weeks of March, revealed that the majority of high street stores saw sales plunge in the most recent period, although stockpiling drove sales increases at grocery stores.