Retail sales volume rose 0.8 per cent in March to a record level, the Central Statistical Office said. City forecasts had centred on a rise of about 0.4 per cent after the Confederation of British Industry's latest downbeat monthly survey of retailers and the slide in consumer confidence identified by Gallup.
But City economists said the CSO figures might have been distorted because pre-Easter trade was, unusually, included in the March total rather than April's.
Ian Shepherdson, of Midland Bank, said the unwinding of this effect could artificially depress next month's figure.
'Even without the effect of this year's earlier Easter, trading in March was at encouraging levels despite the miserable weather,' said Hugh Clark, trading policy director at the British Retail Consortium, the shops and stores trade association. March trading was encouraging, given the amount consumers had spent paying fuel bills in advance to beat the imposition of VAT.
March's rise in spending was broadly spread among shops. The fall in retail sales volume in February was also revised down from 0.5 to 0.3 per cent. It is still possible that spending growth will slow when the effect of the tax increases has been digested.
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