Retail sales in March beat expectations, with shoppers spending more in fashion in anticipation of being able to socialise again, as lockdown restrictions continue to ease.
The Office for National Statistics (ONS) has revealed the amount spent by shoppers increased 7.3% in March and quantity bought rose 7.2% compared with the same month a year earlier – just as the first Covid-19 lockdown started.
Sales were also up 5.5% compared with February and saw March mark a return to sales levels beating pre-pandemic figures, unlike January and February – despite non-essential retailers remaining closed.
Non-essential stores reopened this month (on 12 April) with footfall reaching higher than anticipated levels. According to recently release data from Springboard, retail footfall rose by +87.8% in the first week of reopening compared to the week before, with footfall levels across all UK retail destinations is now just -25.4% lower than the 2019 pre-pandemic level. A further boost is expected when indoor hospitality reopens on 17 May.
Total retail sales in March also marked a return to sales levels higher than those witnessed in February 2020 – up 1.6% – before the pandemic began, despite continued restrictions to non-essential retail.
Sales volumes – the amount of goods bought, rather than the amount spent – were also up in March compared with a month earlier by 5.4%, the ONS added.
Clothes sales were particularly strong – despite non-essential retailers remaining closed – jumping 17.5% – with other non-food sales also up 13.4%.
An easing of travel restrictions in March also saw petrol station sales rise 11.1% and with the vaccine rollout continuing at pace, shoppers headed out to stores that remained open in greater numbers.
As a result, the proportion spent online decreased to 34.7% last month, down from 36.2% in February, but still above the 23.1% reported a year ago.
Food stores reported monthly growth of 2.5% last month, with strong growth in specialist food stores, including butchers and bakers, likely reflecting the continued closure of the hospitality sector during the Easter period, the ONS added.
Despite strong March figures, retail sales for the first three months of the year have been subdued overall, with volumes down 5.8% compared with the previous three months when restrictions had been eased.
What the analysts say:
PWC consumer markets leader Lisa Hooker:
“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.”
Barclays Corporate Banking, head of retail and wholesale, Karen Johnson
“Retailers will be glad of one thing this March: they’re not having a repeat of 2020! Instead of dealing with an impending lockdown and people panic buying loo roll, retailers in 2021 spent their March enjoying the gradual easing of restrictions across the UK – and the positive impact this had on consumer spend, as sales increased both month on month and year on year.
“The return of pupils to schools created something of a ‘back to school’ boost for retailers, as parents kitted out their kids after a long period away. The early Easter weekend and initial easing of lockdown restrictions also meant many people spent a large amount on festive food and drink towards the end of March, which further increased sales.
“Looking ahead, the opening of non-essential retail will pose some key questions to the industry: namely, how will online spending hold up as people return to the high street, and what will this high street look like going forward?”
Deloitte head of retail Ian Geddes
“Today’s retail sales figures give us the first year-on-year comparisons since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. With non-essential shops closed in March, as they were at the end of March 2020, it is hugely encouraging to see sustained momentum as total sales continued their steady growth.
“As expected, consumers continued to shop online for new purchases in the absence of physical stores, this month accounting for 34.7% of all retail sales, slightly down from the previous month but still considerably higher than March 2020. After an exceptional year for the industry, replete with its own challenges, this is an encouraging indication of the store coming. Whether the level of online spending will be sustained over the coming months remains to be seen but, for many consumers, online shopping has become as convenient as the physical store experience.
“With the UK recording its warmest March day in over 50 years, the arrival of spring sunshine was perfectly timed with new season collections, giving clothing and footwear sales a small boost. Eagle-eyed consumers may have even spotted the re-appearance of some 2020 collections, as retailers brought back stock impacted by the UK’s first lockdown. This is unlikely to put off consumers, however, many of whom have been buying fewer new products in an effort to adopt a more sustainable lifestyle during COVID-19 pandemic.
“The reopening of the High Street on 12th April was received enthusiastically by consumers, as they returned in greater numbers than expected for the time of year, with some retailers offering ‘welcome back’ discounts.
“In the absence of many spending opportunities so far this year, some consumers also returned with deeper pockets than usual as a result of having greater levels of savings.
“As the UK continues to roll out its vaccine programme, we’re likely to see greater numbers return to stores in due course.”