The Office for National Statistics (ONS) 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 and saw strong demand and long queues by customers.
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 – was 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.
Lisa Hooker, consumer markets leader at PwC, said: “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.”