Spending reaches 18-month high

HIGH street spending rose to its highest level for 18 months in September, official figures showed yesterday. Norman Lamont, the Chancellor, said this was evidence that 'recent talk of doom and gloom in the high street is much overstated', writes Robert Chote.

Official figures also showed that new construction orders in the three months to August were 5 per cent up on the previous three months, but still 10 per cent down on 1991, adjusting for inflation and seasonal changes.

The City was sceptical that the unexpected 0.16 per cent rise in retail sales volume between August and September was part of a sustainable recovery in consumer spending. Economists pointed to the latest survey of retailers by the Confederation of British Industry, which forecast a weakening in sales in October.

The British Retail Consortium said the reasonable sales figures in September were almost all during the first two-and-a-half weeks. 'In many areas sales slumped from Black Wednesday onwards'.

Retail sales volume in the three months to September was 0.58 per cent higher than in the previous three months. Mr Lamont said there was now a 'clear upward trend'.

However, sales by non-food retailers - which account for nearly 45 per cent of the total - fell by 0.55 per cent on the month. Sales of household goods fell by 1.38 per cent during the month, having risen more than 5 per cent in the previous three months.

Ian Shepherdson, economist at Midland Montagu, said the rise in household goods sales during the summer had been almost entirely due to the greater number of house sales and purchases ahead of August's reimposition of stamp duty. He said they threatened to drop further in October and November as the effect unwound.

Clothing and footwear sales rose in September, but by less than in August. Economists believe this resulted largely from savage price-cutting in the summer, and that the introduction of more expensive autumn ranges could see volumes fall again.

James May, director-general of the British Retail Consortium, said sales volumes appeared to be 'holding up' in October, following a September that was not as bad as many expected. He said that cold, fine weather could boost clothing sales because many people had not bought winter clothes last year.

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