Despite the palpable gloom over the course of the UK economy, shop sales jumped by the biggest amount in more than two decades last month as Britons splashed out on barbecues and beachwear during the hottest May since records began.
But it wasn’t just goods associated with the hot weather that were flying off the shelves, computer games and consoles were also popular with John Lewis selling a Wii sports pack every five minutes and iPods at the rate of one a minute. Currys said flatscreen TVs had been its biggest-selling item last month.
Retail sales volumes increased 3.5% from April, the biggest monthly rise since January 1986. Statisticians admitted they had been surprised by the numbers and had run extra tests and phoned retailers to check that the sales surge actually took place. But government statisticians suggested that the surge in sales was likely to be a blip rather than a turnaround on the high street.
Economists said they were stunned too, especially as they had expected sales to remain broadly static. Sales usually only move a few tenths of a single percentage point each month, not a whopping 3.5%.
Sales of food, and clothing and footwear grew at the fastest rate in 22 years. Food sales climbed 3.3% while clothing jumped by 9.2%. Household goods put in a 2.6% increase. All categories showed growth. Overall sales at "non-food" stores climbed 3.9%, the largest rise since March 1991.
Philip Shaw - chief economist at Investec – said, "I'm staggered. The figures are just on a completely different plane compared to market expectations and they contradict other anecdotal evidence suggesting retail sales activity is softening. There are bound to be questions about whether they reflect a true picture of activity and they will raise speculation of interest rate hikes."
British Retail Consortium director general Stephen Robertson said: "These official figures confirm our own findings that retail sales growth was lifted by the final arrival of warm weather in early May, however, the economic fundamentals remain weak. Much of this sales growth is the result of discounts and promotions and people are still reluctant to buy more expensive items such as furniture."
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