Like-for-like sales on the high street rose 1.9pc, according to figures from the British Retail Consortium and KPMG, soothing concerns about the damage that the cold weather has done to the British economy.
Helen Dickinson, director-general of the BRC, said the performance, which compares with a 2.7pc rise in February, was “not a disaster”.
Low temperatures and snowfall led to the UK enduring its second coldest March on record last month. Data from accountancy firm BDO at the weekend suggested that retailers had a torrid time.
However, the BRC said that its sales data showed that the timing of Easter in March rather than April and strong sales in the run-up to Mother’s Day helped to soften the impact of the snow.
The 2.2pc increase in average like-for-like sales over the past three months is the largest growth in the BRC survey since December 2009. This includes a 2.5pc rise in food sales and a 1.9pc upturn in non-food sales.
The boost in sales over the past three months suggests the UK could avoid a triple-dip recession. The economy shrank by 0.3pc in the final quarter of 2012 and another decline in the three months to the end of March will send the country back into recession.
Ms Dickinson added: “This is a positive result, which rounds off a first quarter of cautious optimism for many retailers.
“Easter fell in March this year but April in 2012, which helps this year’s figures, especially for items which tend to sell well over the long weekend, like food and homewares, but, even if we strip out the data for the last week of March, performances are encouraging, considering the weather impact.
“Snow and the prolonged cold were not ideal but not a disaster. They brought mixed fortunes for different categories. Food was boosted by a continued appetite for hearty meals and ‘wintry’ fare such as roasts and chocolate. But demand was cool for new season clothing and footwear lines, resulting in a decline for both categories.”
Fashion retailers and garden centres are thought to have struggled during the month.
William Sinclair Holdings, the horticulture company, said in a trading update that the unseasonable weather has delayed its spring-selling season, while the pressure on clothing retailers is likely to be reflected in Marks & Spencer’s fourth quarter trading update on Thursday. Analysts have predicted that M&S could report a fall in like-for-like clothing sales of up to 6pc.
David McCorquodale, head of retail at KPMG, said: “Clothing and footwear retailers had a dismal month as the cold weather froze sales, leaving summer skirts and sandals on the shelves.
“This year-on-year fall is made worse by the strong sales last March when a veritable heatwave drove sales of spring stock.”
Despite the weather, the BRC said that growth in online retail sales slowed to 6.6pc in the month, the slowest pace since the London Olympics last summer.
Ms Dickinson said: “The good overall picture wasn’t reflected online. Sales growth was the slowest since August, when the Olympics left many of us ‘otherwise engaged’ with little interest in shopping.
“Fundamentally, online retailing is still strong but in March it outperformed overall retailing by the smallest margin we’ve recorded.”