The second coldest March on record deterred Britons from visiting the shops last month, and keeps alive the possibility that the UK has slipped into an unprecedented triple dip recession.
Retail sales in March were down 0.5 per cent on the same month of 2012, according to the Office for National Statistics, worse than City analysts' expectations of a 0.2 per cent decline. Clothing and shoes sales were down 3.9 per cent year on year. Household goods sales were 6.2 per cent lower.
Robust retail sales growth of 2.5 per cent in February had bolstered hopes that Britain would avoid a second successive GDP contraction in the first quarter of 2012. But March's decline takes the retail sector's performance over the first three months of the year down to just 0.4 per cent growth.
The ONS will report its first estimate of GDP growth for the quarter next Thursday. Separate figures from the ONS this week showed that the squeeze on Britons' pay is intensifying, with average pay growth well below inflation. This real-terms pay cut has prompted analysts to adopt a gloomy view of the likelihood of British shoppers driving an economic recovery.