Retail sales soar as shoppers welcomed back to stores

Retailers enjoyed a surge in spending as shoppers flocked to high streets following the easing of restrictions that saw non-essential stores reopening after the most recent lockdown.

Library image of a woman carrying shopping

Sales in April jumped 9.2% compared with March, with clothes stores proving particularly popular, jumping 25.3%, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

Shoppers focused on clothes for enjoying new freedoms, including outerwear and knitwear, compared with period shopping habits of wearing comfortable clothes for being stuck indoors.

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The easing of travel restrictions also saw a spike in fuel sales, with petrol stations seeing a 69.4% jump compared with March.

It means retail sales have now increased for the past three months as life begins to return to normal.

But with stores reopening, online retailers across all sectors saw a fall in sales as shoppers opted to ditch their computers and smartphones and head to the high street instead, the ONS added.

Compared with April 2020, during the first national lockdown which left high streets deserted, sales were up 43.4% and were also up 9.9% compared with the last month before the Covid-19 pandemic hit.

Despite shoppers returning to stores again, the ONS said it had seen long-term trends emerge from the pandemic that look set to stay.

It found online-only retailers were the biggest winners from the pandemic, with sales up 56% compared with April 2019 and petrol station sales down 13.3% compared with two years ago, as homeworking and reduced travelling hit the sector.

There were signs that the reopening of pubs and restaurants to outdoor diners was starting to have an impact on food sales, with volumes falling 0.9% in April, following three months of growth.

But sales in the sector remain 8.6% higher than in February 2020, the ONS added.

Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the British Retail Consortium, said: “Pent-up demand built up during lockdown continues to be released as the reopening of non-essential retail offered the public a welcomed opportunity to visit many of their favourite shop.

“Improved weather during April meant greater sales of fashion, particularly in outerwear and knitwear, as the public renewed their wardrobe and made plans to meet friends and family outdoors.

“Online sales also continued to perform strongly, rewarding those retailers who had invested in their online and delivery operations during the pandemic.”

But the retail lobbying group boss pointed out that the number of shoppers on high streets is still 40% down and 530,000 retail workers remain on furlough.

She added that the Government must help stores maintain growth by ensuring a long-awaited business rates overhaul provides significant change to help retailers in the future.