Retail sales fall by a record 18.1% in April, ONS reports

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The volume of retail sales in April 2020 fell by a record 18.1%, following the strong monthly fall of 5.2% in March 2020, according to new data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

All sectors saw a monthly decline in volume sales except for a record increase in sales for non-store retailing at 18.0% and a continued increase in sales for alcohol stores at 2.3%.

The volume of clothing sales in April 2020 plummeted by 50.2% when compared with March 2020, which had already fallen by 34.9% on the previous month.

The proportion spent online soared to the highest on record in April 2020 at 30.7%, which compares with the 19.1% reported in April 2019.

All store types, except non-store, reached record proportions of online spending in April 2020 as some stores shifted to online only trading.

The three-month on three-month growth rate in the volume of retail sales decreased by 8.6%, with declines across all sectors except food and non-store retailing.

Commenting on today’s ONS retail sales figures, Ian Geddes, head of retail at Deloitte, said: “Retail sales values and volumes continued to decline throughout April, by 18.7% and 18.1% respectively, as retailers navigated strong headwinds posed by COVID-19. The UK’s first full month of lockdown measures exposed a sharp divide in retail, not only between those in food and non-food, but also between online and in-store sales as physical shops closed.

“Food sales volumes have fallen this month, down 4.1%, as initial consumer stockpiling eased and supply chains caught up with the increased demand. However, in a significant jump, online food sales now account for 9.3% of all food sales, testament to the ability of supermarkets to pivot supply chains and boost their online platforms to manage more home deliveries.

“Whilst the start of lockdown paused non-food sales in physical stores, the virtual high street has seen sales boosted this month, reaching a record 30.7%. This is likely to be aided by the continued online presence of many stores, and some early discounting of mounting seasonal stock.  

“Many non-food retailers will be looking to garden centres and hardware stores to see what challenges may be to come. For food retailers, adapting to consumer behaviour will be key, be it a return to little-and-often shops, or a continuation of home deliveries at today’s levels.

“Whilst current government guidelines hint towards a reopening of more retail space from the start of next month, Deloitte research found that half of food and non-food retailers expect to have at least 41% of store estate open by the end of June, with the remaining half more optimistic, planning the reopening of between 81% and 100% of all store estate.”

Lynda Petherick, a managing director in Accenture’s UKI retail practice, said: “There’s no getting away from the fact that the retail sector is suffering through one of the most profound shifts in consumer behaviour in the last 100 years. April was always going to be the month when the full force of government lockdown measures would hit retailers. Clothing has continued to suffer, and though there are still some bright spots in grocery, “panic-buying” and online household goods orders subsided slightly as consumers continued to restrict their shopping trips.

“Yes – these are hard times for the sector, however there are lessons to be learned if retailers are to come out the other side of the pandemic ready to respond. Online sales continue to reach new heights, suggesting that consumers have been quick to shift their buying habits – a trend which is only likely to continue. Retailers will need to act quickly and deliberately to improve their capabilities if they are to drive growth and profitability in an increasingly digital future.”