Retail sales grow sharply in April, latest ONS figures reveal

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Retail sales volumes grew sharply in April 2021 with a monthly increase of 9.2%, reflecting the effect of the easing of coronavirus (COVID-19) restrictions including the re-opening of all non-essential retail from 12 April in England and Wales and from 26 April in Scotland, according to the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics.

Non-food stores provided the largest contribution to the monthly growth in April 2021 sales volumes, aided by strong increases of 69.4% and 25.3% in clothing stores and other non-food stores respectively.

Retail sales volumes were 42.4% higher than in April 2020, which was affected by the first national lockdown when the tightest restrictions were in place; however, these growth rates are distorted by base effects and are not a reliable guide; sales volumes were 10.6% higher than February 2020, before the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

All retail sectors reported a fall in their proportions of online sales as physical stores re-opened during the month; as a consequence, the total proportion of sales online decreased to 30.0% in April 2021, down from 34.7% in March 2021.

In the three months to April 2021, the volume of sales increased by 2.6% when compared with the previous three months, with strong growth in department stores and automotive fuel retailers of 9.9% and 8.9% respectively.

Commenting on today’s ONS retail sales figures, Ian Geddes, head of retail at Deloitte, said: “As non-essential shops reopened in April for the first time since early January, consumers returned to a very different High Street. Some familiar brands have gone and shoppers also adjusted to the new, socially distanced shopping experience. Nevertheless, pent-up demand drove an enthusiastic return, particularly in the first few days of reopening, and saw positive momentum in footfall. April’s overall spending by value (ex. fuel) was up both month-on-month (9.1%) and year-on-year (37.9%). However, some of this uplift will be driven by low comparatives from 2020.

A mixed bag

“A ‘mixed bag’ of shoppers returned to stores this month, some with savings due to fewer opportunities to spend since March 2020. Other shoppers made use of extended returns periods to bring back items in-store, even unwanted Christmas gifts. More notably for younger generations, the reopening of non-essential retail – particularly those with limited online presence – also provided the first opportunity go out and revamp wardrobes; perhaps in preparation for further easing on social occasions, large events, and leisure activities.

“Online sales, whilst remaining strong, slowed this month as a proportion of overall sales to 30% – the novelty or leisure value of visiting a store a likely factor. It remains to be seen whether in-store spending and footfall can maintain their momentum despite the cold spring weather. May’s figures are likely to be more indicative of this, at which point we’re likely to see consumers drawn back to town centres with the reopening of indoor hospitality.

Consumer recovery starts here

“Spending has not yet returned to pre-pandemic levels, but we predict this milestone to be reached in the second half of 2021. Until then, consumer trends will closely track the roadmap out of lockdown.

“With travel restrictions recently loosened, for example, consumers could turn their attentions to holiday purchases – be it for UK stays or sunnier climes.”

Silvia Rindone, EY UK & Ireland retail leader, said: “Significant pent-up consumer demand was evident in April’s retail sales figures, which reflect the reopening of non-essential stores early on in the month. With consumers keen to return to the in-store shopping experience and indulge in retail therapy, we saw a sales boost across most categories. There were particular increases in clothing and footwear as consumers spent on areas related to in-person socialising.

“The reopening of physical stores has led to a corresponding decline in online sales. But beyond the initial excitement around returning to stores, consumers will continue to shop both in-store and online and are becoming increasingly demanding over the service they receive. EY research indicates that shoppers want to easily mix and match their research and buying across channels. Consumers are looking for ease and convenience from online channels, while seeking engaging in-store events and experiences that will give them compelling reasons to visit shops and high streets. Pricing and proposition also remain vital, with more than three in five consumers saying price is their most important criteria and one in five willing to switch brands to reduce costs. Retailers need to continue thinking carefully about how they balance and integrate their offerings so they can meet these longer-term expectations and drive sustainable growth.”