Retail sales jump as shoppers buy new outfits before lockdown easing

Retail sales jump 5.4% in March as shoppers splash out on new outfits to wear ahead of lockdown easing

  • Retail sales volumes up 5.4% in month to March and 7.2% in the year, ONS said
  • Clothes sales particularly strong last month, up 17.5% in the month
  • Sales at plant retailers and garden centres sales up 7.4%, which is above average
  • But retail sales for the quarter are still down 5.8% compared to previous quarter

Retail sales jumped more than expected last month as shoppers splashed on new clothes ahead of the easing of lockdown this month, official figures have showed.

The amount of goods bought from retailers rose 5.4 per cent between February and March, with sales returning to pre-pandemic levels despite stores remaining closed, the Office for National Statistics said.

Retail sales volume were also 7.2 per cent higher than in March 2020, when the country entered its very first lockdown.

People queuing  outside a Nike store in central London on 12 April, when stores reopened

Clothes sales were particularly strong last month, jumping 17.5 per cent despite non-essential retailers only reopening this month on 12 April, according to the figures. 

But despite last month’s jump, clothes sales are still a whopping 41 per cent below pre-pandemic levels, which shows the extent to which refreshing wardrobes has fallen out of fashion. 

On the other hand, people seem to have been increasingly taken on gardening, with plant retailers and garden centres seeing monthly sales growth of 7.4 per cent, which is above average for this time of year, the ONS said. 

An easing of travel restrictions in March also saw petrol station sales rise 11.1 per cent, while food store sales rose 2.5 per cent, with specialist food stores like butchers and bakers seeing especially ‘strong growth’ as Britons shopped for their Easter lunch as restaurants remained closed.   

‘March’s strong rise in retail sales showed that the economy made a fair bit of progress even before non-essential retailers reopened in April,’ Paul Dales, an economist with Capital Economics, said. 

Howard Archer, chief economic advisor to the EY ITEM Club, added: ‘It does appear that many people were intent on having an enjoyable Easter break and this likely lifted retail sales later in the month.’   

Retail sales volumes increased by 5.4% between February and March

Retail sales volumes increased by 5.4% between February and March

Non-food stores, which includes fashion stores, saw the strongest growth in sales last month

Non-food stores, which includes fashion stores, saw the strongest growth in sales last month

But despite the strong March figures, retail sales for the first quarter are still down 5.8 per cent compared to the last quarter of 2020.  

The proportion spent online decreased to 34.7 per cent in March 2021, down from 36.2 per cent in February 2021 but still above the 23.1 per cent reported in March 2020.

The ONS said that while the value of online spending did increase in March, spending in-store actually increased at a faster rate.   

With spring coming and shops now all open, it remains to be seen if shoppers will continue to splash the cash they have saved during lockdown on the High Street. 

Separate recent figures have shown that the number of people visiting shops increased by almost 200 per cent last week in England as non-essential stores reopened. 

The British Retail Consortium said footfall jumped by 195.5 per cent in England on the six days to Saturday 17 April compared with the week before.   

However, large numbers of shoppers are still shunning the high street, with footfall in England down around 23 per cent compared with the same week in 2019, the BRC said.    

Lisa Hooker, consumer markets leader at PwC, said of the latest retail sales data: ‘Much though these figures will give cheer to the whole sector, retailers will be hoping that these positive signs translate into a sustained return to the physical stores as they reopen across the UK over the course of April. 

‘The real test of whether pent-up demand can be turned into actual sales will come with next month’s figures.’