UNSEASONAL sunshine and a view that the worst may be over pushed Irish shoppers to spend more money in March than they had in February.
The latest figures from the Central Statistics Office (CSO) show that the volume of retail sales rose marginally last month compared with February, as more consumers bought cars and drank more in the pubs.
The better-than-expected sales figures showed overall growth of 0.2pc over the previous month, with motor sales rising 4.1pc and bar sales up 3.5pc. However, annual sales were down by 1.7pc.
Year on year, sales are down -- although on a far smaller scale than in previous years. March remained down by 1pc on the same month last year and this year's first quarter was down 1.3pc on last year's.
Arnotts' chief executive Nigel Blow said he had seen a definite lift in sales last month and especially over the Easter.
"March probably lifted for us, as per the statistics," he said. "However, Easter is an important period for us, so we did up some figures to compare this Easter with last year's and were pleasantly surprised to see that trading had increased by 7pc. All in all, it's better than we had expected."
Blaine Callard, CEO of Harvey Norman, said he saw a slight lift in March and that April also seemed to be positive.
"Our store teams report more inquiries for future purchases and more buying activity in general," he said. "We are optimistic for a stronger quarter in April, May and June, compared to last year, but the market overall is still sluggish."
Alan McQuaid, chief economist with Bloxham, said the figures illustrated "a move in the right direction" but indicated that retailers were unlikely to be celebrating, given that they were still struggling with the fallout from the last Budget's VAT increase, soaring fuel prices, boom-era rates bills and upwards-only rent reviews.
However, he added: "With lesser falls in sales each year, it does look like we're getting near to the bottom and that the worst might be over. The economy is starting to grow again and the live register has also fallen over the past few months, which is a sign that things may be starting to stabilise.
"But it could be as late as 2014 before things begin to improve properly."
Jim Barry, managing director of the Barry Group, a wholesaler catering for the convenience store trade, said confidence was up ever so slightly but that the country had been locked into a dropping spiral, with sales falling 5pc each year.
He added: "It shows perhaps that while we're not quite at the bottom, we might just be nearly there. While conditions are certainly still difficult, people are now running better businesses, with less waste, and if they can get through these times they will be in far better shape than ever when the recovery comes."
However, Davy reacted with caution, saying that the outlook for consumer spending "remains bleak".
It highlighted a 3pc hike in fuel costs in the first quarter as being among the greatest obstacles. Davy expects spending to fall overall by 1.7pc in 2012 on the back of high unemployment and static wages.