Retail sales boosted as shoppers snap up new outfits ahead of lockdown easing

Retail sales beat expectations in March, with shoppers snapping up new outfits in preparation for going out again once lockdown restrictions ease.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) revealed the amount spent by shoppers rose 7.3 per cent in March compared with March 2020 when the first Covid-19 lockdown started.

Clothes sales were particularly strong – despite non-essential retailers remaining closed – jumping 17.5 per cent, with other non-food sales rising 13.4 per cent.

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Susannah Streeter, senior investment and markets analyst at Hargreaves Lansdown, said: “After the bleak mid-winter, March brought a spring in the step for retail sales, as shoppers looked forward to restrictions easing.

“After months of languishing in loungewear, shoppers sought out new styles eyeing the chance to go ‘out out’ once more.

“It seems making advance table bookings for April, prompted the filling of digital shopping baskets in March with spring fashions, leading to a 10.9 per cent growth in spending at textile, clothing and footwear stores.”

The ONS said retail sales rose 5.5 per cent compared with February. March saw a return to sales levels that beat pre-pandemic figures, unlike January and February – despite non-essential retailers remaining closed.

Non-essential stores reopened earlier this month and saw strong demand and long queues by customers.

An easing of travel restrictions in March also saw petrol station sales rise 11.1 per cent and with the vaccine rollout continuing at pace, more shoppers headed out to stores that remained open.

As a result, the proportion spent online decreased to 34.7 per cent last month, down from 36.2 per cent in February, but still above the 23.1 per cent reported a year ago.

Food stores reported monthly growth of 2.5 per cent 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 per cent compared with the previous three months when restrictions had been eased.

Lisa Hooker, consumer markets leader at PwC, said: “The real test of whether pent-up demand can be turned into actual sales will come with next month’s figures.”