UK retail sales soar in April as shops reopen

British retail sales soared in April as consumers splurged on new clothes after shops reopened following months of lockdown closures in Britain.

Retail sales volume jumped 9.2 per cent in April on the month, after rising 5.1 per cent in March, and were 42.4 per cent higher than April last year when the UK was plunged into its first nationwide lockdown, the Office for National Statistics said.

The highest growth was in non-food retail with clothing sales in shops soaring by almost 70 per cent. Meanwhile, the proportion spent online dropped to 30 per cent, down from 34.7 per cent in March last year.

“Retail sales grew sharply in April and are now over 10 per cent above pre-pandemic levels as restrictions eased and more shops were able to open their doors,” said Jonathan Athow, deputy statistician at the ONS.

“Clothing sales soared by nearly three quarters as consumers took advantage of being able to visit physical stores. Perhaps unsurprisingly, overall online sales dipped but still remain high.”

Fuel sales increased again this month but remain below the pre-pandemic level, because although more people are travelling, many are still working from home.

Britain’s retailers were hit hard by the pandemic with shops in particular affected by closures during three lockdowns in England. The latest shutdown saw non-essential shops in England close from early January until April 12.

The reopening helped Britain’s longest-running survey of consumer sentiment, from GfK, return to its March 2020 level before Britain felt the full force of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Naeem Aslam, chief market analyst at Think Markets, said Britain’s retail rebound led to the pound ticking higher against the dollar and euro on Friday morning, continuing an upward surge over the past few weeks during which the currency has risen 3.6 per cent in dollar terms since April 9.

“The British pound, which was already trading higher against the dollar, is firing on all cylinders on the back of the UK’s retail sales data,” Mr Aslam said.

The “astonishing” surge in clothing and footwear sales in April “showed that households were particularly keen to update their wardrobes”, said Paul Dales, chief UK economist at Capital Economics.

While there was less scope now for major gains in retail, Mr Dales said recent data suggested people returning to restaurants, cinemas and theatres drove May’s economic recovery.

Meanwhile, fewer virtual baskets were filled, with online spending dropping 5.6 per cent in April and the proportion spent online also falling as real shopping trips took over from the trend of digital browsing from the comfort of the sofa, said Susannah Streeter, senior investment and markets analyst at Hargreaves Lansdown.

“With hospitality reopening after the Easter break, it sucked grocery spend away from supermarkets and into the tills of restaurants and cafes,” she said.

“Food store sales volumes declined by 0.9 per cent in April 2021 following three consecutive months of growth since December 2020. But food store sales remain considerably higher than their pre-pandemic level, with sales in April this year 8.6 per cent higher than in February 2020.”

Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the British Retail Consortium, said demand remains fragile, despite building up during lockdown and helping figures take a step in the right direction.

Footfall is still down by 40 per cent on the pre-pandemic period, she said, and 530,000 people who work in retail are still on furlough.

“The end of the full business rates relief in England poses a significant threat to retailers who have spent well over £1 billion ($1.41bn) on Covid-secure measures aimed at protecting staff and customers,” Ms Dickinson said.

“The government must deliver on its promise to reform the broken business rates system in their ongoing review. By doing so, the industry will be able to make essential investment in improving their digital offering and breathing new life into our high streets and town centres.”

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