Shoppers increase spending despite Brexit uncertainty | Business

British consumers appear to have shrugged off mounting fears over Brexit by raising their spending in February, as unseasonably warm weather tempted shoppers to the high street.

The Office for National Statistics said sales volumes rose by 0.4% last month compared to January, confounding City economists’ expectations for sales to fall by the same amount. Annual sales growth eased slightly to 4% in February from 4.2% a month earlier.

The latest analysis of the high street could suggest that shoppers have tuned out of the political turmoil in Westminster as Theresa May faced repeated rebellions over her EU withdrawal plan.

Duncan Brewer, a partner in retail and consumer goods at the consultancy firm Oliver Wyman, said warm weather last month likely tempted shoppers to buy goods in readiness for the spring but also warned that some consumers may have started stockpiling in the run-up to Brexit.

The ONS said the monthly jump in sales was fuelled by a rise in spending at non-food stores, which includes clothes shops, department stores and household goods retailers.

Despite the jump in overall sales, supermarkets recorded a sharp decline in sales last month. Food stores recorded the biggest drop in monthly sales since December 2016 as January sales promotions ended and retailers went “back to normal” on pricing, to the detriment of sales volumes.

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Alcohol stores recorded the largest monthly decline among retailers in February, with shoppers reining in their spending after splurging on beer, cider, wine and spirits in December and January.

The overall increase in sales comes as inflation eases back from a five-year high in 2017, while pay growth accelerates at the fastest rate in a decade. Employment has remained at a record high and unemployment has fallen to the lowest level since the start of 1975.

Samuel Tombs, the chief UK economist at the consultancy Pantheon Macroeconomics, said: “February’s retail sales figures show that the improving trend in real wages, and not the uncertainty created by the Brexit saga, is the dominant influence on households’ spending at present.”

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