Provisional figures from the Central Statistics Office  show that the volume of retail sales fell by 0.2% in February compared to the previous month.

But retail sales rose by 8.2% on an annual basis in February.

The CSO said that when motor sales are excluded, retail sales rose by 0.7% on a monthly basis and by 4.8% on a yearly basis.

During February, the sectors with the biggest monthly increase included pharmaceuticals, medical and cosmetic articles with sales in that sector up 4.5%. Fuel sales increased by 3.3% while sales in non-specialised stores rose by 1%.

Department stores saw the biggest monthly fall in sales - down 2.1% - while furniture and lighting sales dimmed by 1.7% and bar sales slowed by 1.6%.

Today's figures also show a monthly fall of 0.5% in the value of retail sales last month, while they rose by 4.4% on an annual basis.

Commenting on the CSO figures, Investec Ireland's chief economist Philip O'Sullivan said that the fact that volume growth outstripped value growth across the retail sector shows that discounting/passing on wholesale price reductions is still needed to help stimulate consumer demand. 

But he added that today's figures serve as a further illustration of the return of the Irish consumer, helped by rising employment and incomes. He pointed out that the KBC-ESRI consumer confidence index stood at its highest level in nine years in January. 

"With further tax cuts flagged for October's budget and indicators such as the employment component of Investec’s Services and Manufacturing PMIs for Ireland suggesting that firms are continuing to add to headcounts, we expect to see further strong retail sales readings over the coming months at least," the economist added.

Meanwhile, Merrion economist Alan McQuaid said that although consumers are still reluctant to go on "a mad spending spree", there does seem to be a view that the worst is over following the severe economic/financial downturn.

Mr McQuaid pointed out that consumer spending hit a nine-year high at the start of 2015. He said hopefully that will be reflected in stronger retail spending as the year goes on. 

He also said there is anecdotal evidence that the strength of sterling is starting to encourage people from Northern Ireland to cross the border and shop in the south.