Retailers report rise in high street spending

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HIGH street spending growth was higher in the year to January than at any time since the aftermath of the general election, according to the latest survey of retailers by the Confederation of British Industry.

The survey is in line with tomorrow's official figures, which will show that sales volume rose last month after a surprise 0.7 per cent fall in December.

The Chancellor is likely to use the figures to argue that there is currently no case for another interest rate cut.

Some 43 per cent of retailers told the CBI that their sales in January were up on a year earlier, compared with 32 per cent reporting a drop. In December a majority had reported that sales were down on a year earlier.

'A further, though more modest, improvement is expected in February,' Nigel Whittaker, chairman of the CBI's distributive trades panel, said. 'Over the coming months, the interest rate reductions seen since September will be filtering through to homeowners' pockets and this should help to lift consumer confidence.'

But the CBI warned that rising unemployment and a large burden of consumer debt meant it was too early to conclude that the rise in spending would be sustained.

Andrew Sentance, the CBI's chief economist, said there was reason for 'cautious optimism', although Friday's inflation figures suggested that trade had been boosted by considerable price discounting in the January sales. He added that sales had also risen strongly in the two months after the general election, only for the improvement to melt away.

The British Retail Consortium said its members had also reported that January was a good month. A spokeswoman said that shoppers had been willing to wait until the New Year sales were well under way to take advantage of better bargains.

The CBI said that chemists, grocers, clothing, footwear and leather retailers had reported strong sales growth, but that off- licences, furniture and carpet retailers, confectionery, tobacco and newspaper retailers and bookshops had seen sales fall.

There is little sign that the rise in spending will bring knock-on benefits to suppliers. Retailers reported that their stocks are too high and that they plan to order fewer goods than a year ago.

Wholesalers reported a rise in sales in the year to January, but stock levels rose sharply and orders from suppliers were sharply down. Motor traders saw their strongest rise in sales since the year to January 1989.