UK retail sales grew sharply in April as non-essential stores reopened and consumers flocked to the high street, sending sales at clothing retailers surging by almost 70% month-on-month – narrowing the gap with pre-pandemic levels.
The latest data released today (21 May) by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) shows overall UK retail sales volumes saw a monthly increase of 9.2%, reflecting the effect of the easing of coronavirus (Covid-19) restrictions including the reopening of all non-essential retail from 12 April in England and Wales and from 26 April in Scotland.
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 coronavirus pandemic.
Non-food stores reported the largest monthly growth in sales volumes in April 2021 of 25.4%, with clothing stores in particular reporting strong growth of 69.4% as the sector benefitted from the reopening of physical stores. Compared with February 2020, sales at clothing stores were down 0.3%. This compares to a 41.5% gap last month.
Online spending, meanwhile, dropped 5.6% month-on-month in April, while the opening of physical stores saw the proportion of retail spending online decline to 30% from 34.7% in March 2021.
Enthusiastic return to the high street
Lynda Petherick, head of retail for Accenture UK and Ireland, notes April was the milestone month that all retailers had been gearing up for, when non-essential retailers were allowed to reopen their stores.
“Thankfully consumers did not disappoint, heading to the high streets in hoards, eager to make the most of their new-found freedoms. Clothing stores fared particularly well, along with other non-food outlets, as consumers prepared for increasing levels of freedom in the coming months.
“Though there was a swing back towards in-store sales this month, online sales have remained relatively strong after a year where consumers became accustomed to doing their shopping online.
“Retailers will see the reopening of indoor hospitality this month as a means to increase sales further, as shoppers are given even more reason to head to high streets and city centres. These are encouraging times for the retail sector, however, it would be naïve to forget the industry challenges that predate the pandemic, particularly when it comes to stock. With international travel still uncertain this year and current UK weather being very poor, retailers must be mindful of their summer stock inventory going forward and make the most of pent-up demand now.”
Ian Geddes, head of retail at Deloitte, adds consumers returned to a very different high street with some familiar brands gone and a 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 (excluding 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’ 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 to 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.
“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.”
Jacqui Baker, partner and head of retail at RSM, adds with retail fully open for 19 days in England and only five days in Scotland, expectations for a bumper month of trading were low, but warmer days did bring shoppers out at first, lifting the mood on the high street and encouraging spend.
“As physical stores opened their doors and amid the prospect of socialising, clothing and footwear were the biggest winners with sales growth at 69.4% when compared to March 2021.
“Many retailers were eager for more, but the abrupt return to cold and constant downpours dampened retail spending and with the relaxation of restrictions on the same day there was tough competition for pent-up consumer spend from salons, beauticians, bars, and restaurants.
“Although the weather has remained miserable throughout May, retailers will be hopeful that the lure of an in-store shopping experience combined with a sociable lunch inside will boost footfall to shift seasonal stock as we move into the summer.”