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Garden party plans help push up UK retail sales

·2-min read
COVID-19 restrictions in Wales begin to ease

LONDON (Reuters) - British retail sales rose in February, helped in part by consumers buying outdoor furniture ahead of a partial relaxing of coronavirus restrictions which will allow people to meet in gardens from next week.

Sales volumes increased by 2.1% from January - in line with a Reuters poll of economists - after a plunge of more than 8% in January when England went back into a lockdown and the rest of the United Kingdom was also under tough restrictions.

Retail sales were down 3.7% compared with February 2020, before the pandemic struck most Western economies, with many non-essential retailers still closed as authorities kept a tight grip on social distancing rules.

Many retailers have rushed to improve or launch their online shopping operations over the past year.

The Office for National Statistics said the share of shopping done online stood at a record high of 36.1%.

The Bank of England says the degree to which households spend the savings they have racked up while being stuck at home will determine the speed of Britain's recovery from its deepest economic shock in more than three centuries.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson plans to allow groups of up to six people to meet in gardens from March 29 while non-essential retailers are expected to reopen on April 12.

On Thursday, a survey by the Confederation of British Industry showed retailers suffered another difficult month in March but expectations for sales for the month ahead turned positive for the first time since December 2019.

The ONS said February's recovery from January, when sales slumped by a monthly 8.2%, was helped by increased shopping at budget-end department stores which were allowed to stay open because they sold food.

"Household goods also fared well, with feedback suggesting spending on home improvement and outdoor products boosted sales as consumers prepared for an easing of lockdown restrictions," ONS statistician Jonathan Athow said.

"However, clothing stores continue to struggle with sales down more than half on their pre-pandemic level."

(Reporting by William Schomberg and Andy Bruce; editing by Guy Faulconbridge)