UK retail sales fell by 0.9% between February and March with shops blaming wet weather for fewer shoppers.
Non-food retailers, in particular, said that rainfall affected sales with department stores and clothing shops reporting a drop in volumes.
It was the sixth wettest March on record since 1836, according to the Met Office.
The retail figures were worse than expected and came after a rise in sales the month before.
The Office for National Statistics (ONS) also said that sales at food shops also fell, down 0.7%, following shortages of some products.
Many supermarkets imposed limits on fresh produce such as tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers because of poor weather in areas including southern Spain and North Africa.
The ONS said that “26% of adults experienced shortages of essential food items that were needed on a regular basis” for much of March. That was an increase of the 18% who reported similar problems in February.
The amount of food that people bought last month is 3% below pre-pandemic levels in February 2020, which retailers blamed on the increased cost of living and higher prices.
Inflation – the rate at which prices are rising – hit 10.1% in March, mainly due to the increasing cost of food. The rate had been expected to fall below 10%.
However, a drop in food production costs – which peaked in October last year according to the British Retail Consortium (BRC) – has not yet filtered into supermarkets.
The BRC said that it takes between three and nine months for falling prices to reach shops. But it said: “We expect consumer food prices to start coming down over the next few months.”
Despite the sharp fall in March, retail sales for the first three months of the year grew by 0.6% compared to the previous three months. Capital Economics said this is the first rise in quarterly sales since the April-to-June period in 2021.
It said that this suggests “the 18-month retail ‘recession’ may have come to an end. Indeed, the more seasonable weather in April may support a rebound in sales this month”.
However, Capital Economics said sales could still be tempered by a further rise in the interest rate when the Bank of England next meets in May, putting further pressure on consumer spending.
The Bank has been raising borrowing costs – which currently stand at 4.25% – to try to calm stubbornly high inflation.