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March retail sales tumbled as lockdown measures took hold

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Retail sales in March plunged 5.1% – the biggest drop ever recorded by the Office for National Statistics – as Brits were told to stay at home to minimise the spread of coronavirus.

The total amount spent also fell by 5.7% in the month, with clothing store sales seeing a sharp 34.8% decline compared to February as many stores shut their doors following government guidelines.

Food stores and non-store retailing were the only sectors to show growth in the monthly volume, with food stores seeing the strongest growth on record, at 10.4%.

The value of food sales saw the strongest increase in March 2020, with a monthly growth rate of 101% when compared with the monthly growth rate of 2.6% in March 2019.

Online sales as a proportion of all retailing also reached a record high of 22.3% as high street footfall made way for delivery services. Alcohol store sales surged 31.4% in the month.

The travel restrictions also resulted in a decline for fuel sales (2%) during 1 March and 4 April 2020.

The ONS data when comparing the three-month by three-month figures, reveal that retail sales fell 1.6% with large declines in non-food stores and fuel.

Sarah Coles, personal finance analyst at Hargreaves Lansdown, said the March data is unlikely to hold the record for monthly sales falls for long.

She said: “If we’re seeing this kind of collapse in sales in March – when only eight days were spent in lockdown – April is doing to be really messy.

“This is enormously difficult for retail businesses. Many are likely to have taken advantage of government schemes, loans and grants, but many more will still face impossible rent bills and incredibly difficult questions about whether they can keep going. It begs the question of just how many will still be on their feet when we eventually emerge from this crisis.

“For shoppers, meanwhile, March’s figures seem to show we’ve been quick to take decisive action in cutting our costs. We’ve cut back on luxuries and the nice-to-haves and done some sensible belt-tightening. This could make all the difference for those managing on lower incomes.

“Of course this belt-tightening is just figurative. Given the rise in food and alcohol sales, literal belts may need to be loosened a notch or two if lockdown lasts much longer.”

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