Easter weekend shopping spree brings sunshine to retail sector

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The Independent Online

Britain's shoppers yesterday began a bank holiday weekend spending spree, making the most of the warm weather in what is a vital period for UK retailers.

Britain's shoppers yesterday began a bank holiday weekend spending spree, making the most of the warm weather in what is a vital period for UK retailers.

Stores reported seeing high visitor numbers and strong sales as customers loaded up with picnic, barbecue and gardening goods.

A spokeswoman for B&Q, the UK's largest DIY store, said: "Our stores were very busy yesterday. The gardening divisions were full right though until the mid-afternoon, and plant sales seemed to be very strong."

The Easter break is a traditional DIY and gardening weekend and the Centre for Economic and Business Research estimates the spend on home improvements could total £1bn, equivalent to £40 for every household in the country.

B&Q said it expects 8 million people to come through its doors in search of plants, paint, compost, hosepipes, lawnmowers and garden chairs this weekend. David Roth, the marketing director at B&Q, said: "Even though there have been reports of a cooling in the housing market, people will still use the Easter break as a time to do DIY projects. Not everyone is planning to sell their house, many are doing up a property they have just bought and most are doing general home improvements to maintain their home."

Focus Wickes, the garden and DIY chain, said it also expects a record weekend. The warm weather has meant customers began doing up their gardens earlier than usual this year, and sales of gardening equipment – including furniture, tools, plants and water features – are up 24 per cent on the same period last year. Retailers are in need of some good sales figures this Easter after more modest growth in recent months and fears that tax hikes and economic and political uncertainty will lead customers to keep the purse strings tied tight. The rate of year-on-year sales growth slowed from 4.3 per cent in January to 3.2 per cent in February, according to National Statistics' Retail Index, while the British Retail Consortium said growth was just 2.1 per cent in March.

Verdict, the retail analyst group, believes Easter sales could actually be down on last year. Richard Hyman of Verdict yesterday said: "The rise in national insurance contributions will take some spending power out of the economy, and the growth in house values is decelerating, so people are starting to feel less well off. The current political unrest is far from over, and the economy is still rather depressed."

Supermarkets are so far reporting busy stores as the warm weather dominates product sales. Asda yesterday said its stores had been full in the run up to the Easter break and it was expecting a bumper weekend. In the past week alone, sales of barbecues were up 78 per cent, sunscreen lotion sales were up 150 per cent and ice cream was up 40 per cent. The biggest seller so far has been its range of sunglasses, which went up 600 per cent on last week.

And a Tesco spokesman said: "The indications are that our stores have been very busy." The UK's largest supermarket has had a special taskforce in action in the past few days, dubbed Operation Cliff, where teams of staff have been working round the clock to keep stores fully stocked in sun cream, barbecues and salads.

Sainsbury's, too, said sales of barbecues, ice cream and the alcoholic drink Pims had been strong throughout the week.

But Verdict said the cooler weather expected as the Easter weekend progresses could benefit some retailers. Mr Hyman said: "A cold spell may be no bad thing, as people are less likely to spend their days in the garden or visiting country estates and the like, and will hit the shops instead. Monday is likely to be the big shopping day when the weather is not expected to be so nice."

Out-of-town shopping centres, such as Bluewater in Essex, are looking forward to that change in weather, as people look to buy a new summer wardrobe, Bluewater said.