Weather blamed for latest fall in retail sales
Retailers suffered a bigger than expected fall in sales last month after the second coldest March on record left them unable to shift stock.
In a continuation of the rollercoaster performance seen this year, with sales rebounding 2.1% in February after a snow-hit January, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) said sales were 0.7% lower last month.
Clothing and footwear volumes were down 3.1% on a month earlier as the weather thwarted retailers' spring sales.
Sales of household goods dived 6.2% as lines such as hardware, paint and electrical appliances remained stuck on stores' shelves – the worst performance since January 2010.
And department stores recorded their steepest monthly fall since February 2011 as sales plunged 4% on the month.
Economists had largely expected retailers to struggle in March after heavy snowfall returned to blanket the UK.
But the figure is worse than forecasts for a decline of 0.4% and will add to fears over the health of the economy ahead of first-quarter GDP figures.
On a year earlier, retail sales were down 0.5% in March.
Food shops helped offset the dismal performance by department stores and fashion retailers in March, increasing sales 0.9% on a month earlier.
Many consumers stayed at home to shop, the ONS said, with online sales accounting for 10.4% of all spending, compared with 8.8% a year earlier.
Overall, retail contributed to growth in the first three months of the year – with a 0.4% volume increase on the final three months of 2012.
That will lift hopes that the wider service sector helped the UK grow in the fourth quarter – thus avoiding another recession.
James Knightley, economist at ING Bank, said retail's performance could have been "significantly worse" and offers a "little more reassurance that the UK will avoid its third technical recession in five years".