UK retail sales surge 9.2% as lockdown eases

Sales volumes for the UK retail sector last month were 42.4% higher than in April 2020

People on a shopping street in London                                 

UK retail sales rose 9.2% in April after shoppers splashed out on clothes as the easing of COVID-19 lockdown restrictions meant non-essential shops were back open.

This is the biggest rise since June last year and it follows a 5.1% rise in March. Clothing sales saw the strongest recovery, surging by 69.4% in April, according to figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

Sales volumes last month were 42.4% higher than in April 2020, when they collapsed during the first national lockdown, the ONS said.

Overall, sales were 10.6% higher than pre-pandemic levels. But many high street shops have suffered significantly due to on and off lockdowns, with some stores left permanently closed leading to thousands of job losses.

Government stimulus 

Unemployment has not risen significantly in the UK thanks to the government’s furlough scheme, which has supported 11.5 million jobs since it began. The latest provisional figures show 4.2 million jobs on furlough as at 31 March, down from 4.7 million on 28 February. 

At the scheme’s peak in May last year, 30% of the UK workforce was furloughed. The proportion of furloughed hospitality and leisure sector workers fell from more than 80% in May 2020 to less than 30% by mid-August last year. As at 31 March this year, the latest figures show 1.06 million jobs furloughed in the accommodation and food services sector..

It is not certain if the end of furlough scheme, which is due in September, could trigger more unemployment, as the country is still in process of recovering from the pandemic.

Spending elsewhere 

Meanwhile, all retail sectors reported a fall in online sales as physical stores reopened during the month. The total proportion of online sales fell to 30% in April 2021, its lowest since December and down from 34.7% the previous month.

Spending at supermarkets also fell slightly on the month as restaurants reopened for outside dining, while fuel sales increased, but remained below pre-pandemic levels.

Supermarkets were the only sector to report a monthly decline of 0.9% in sales volumes. But food store sales are still much higher than their pre-pandemic levels with sales 8.6% higher in April 2021 than in February 2020.

Further reading: UK inflation in April more than doubles to 1.5%

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