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Retail sales up as shoppers return
Retail sales staged a bigger-than-expected bounce-back last month as shoppers returned to the high street after a weather-hit January, according to official figures.
The Office for National Statistics (ONS) said sales volumes rose 1.7% month on month in February, smashing forecasts for sales to edge 0.5% higher.
It comes after a disappointing January, with the ONS revealing that sales fell even more than first thought, down by 2% against an initial estimate for a 1.5% decline.
Even s tripping out the often volatile changes from month to month, sales were 1.6% higher in the three months to the end of February compared with the previous three-month period - the highest since August last year.
Experts said the figures boosted hopes for another robust performance from the economy in the first quarter, easing fears that the extreme wet weather and flooding knocked the recovery off track.
Alan Clarke, director at Scotiabank, said the figures showed retail sales "are flying".
The month-on-month rise in retail volumes was led by food stores, which accounted for more than half of the growth, according to the ONS.
Sales across food stores and supermarkets rose 2.1% between January and February and by 1.6% on a year earlier.
This is at odds with recent figures from the "big four" players, with Sainsbury's the latest to blame tough conditions after it broke a nine-year record for rising underlying sales.
The big chains are fighting back with a raft of price-cutting campaigns to win over cost-conscious shoppers.
The ONS said average prices of goods fell year-on-year for the first time since September 2009, down 0.2% in February due to lower costs on petrol forecourts.
Chris Williamson, chief economist at Markit, predicted that recent drier weather conditions should help maintain robust retail sales.
He said: "With the advent of warmer than usual weather in March, clothing and footwear sales will no doubt have received an early seasonal boost, which should help drive sales even higher at the end of the first quarter.
"With 2014 set to be the year in which real incomes start rising again, after having been driven down continually since late-2009, the consumer should therefore play an important role in sustaining the economic recovery," he added.
The figures also showed continuing increases in internet sales, with average weekly spending online up by 12.4% year-on-year to £678.8 million in February - accounting for 10.7% of retail spending excluding fuel.