Coronavirus: Retail sales fall by record 18.1% in April as shutdown takes hold

May 22, 2020

The volume of retail sales in April fell by a record 18.1% as stores were forced to close their doors due to the coronavirus lockdown.

The figures from the Office for National Statistics follow a 5.2% fall in March, which was a record at the time and came as many UK retail businesses shut down due to government measures to limit the spread of COVID-19.

Among the sectors to suffer was clothing, where sales plummeted by 50.2% in April compared with March, which had seen a 34.9% fall.

The volume of goods sold by household stores fell 45.4%, on the back of an 8.7% drop from February to March.

The only bright spots for retailers were a record increase in non-store retailing of 18% and an increase in sales for alcohol stores of 2.3%.

Almost all store types saw record online spending in April, as many retailers shifted to online-only trading to keep business ticking during the coronavirus crisis.

Jeremy Thomson Cook, chief economist at Equals, said: "Today's UK retail sales figures show the nature of consumer facing businesses through the COVID-19 crisis; you have to be online and food or booze-related or your sales have been crippled.

"Coronavirus has put the High Street in stasis - and the reopening of shopping centres and areas will take a huge amount of time and planning with no guarantee of a full recovery.

"Online fulfilment will remain crucial given shoppers may have the ability to return to shops soon but the desire to physically turn up will likely be lacking."

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Ian Geddes, head of retail at Deloitte, said: "Many non-food retailers will be looking to garden centres and hardware stores to see what challenges may be to come.

"For food retailers, adapting to consumer behaviour will be key, be it a return to little-and-often shops, or a continuation of home deliveries at today's levels."

Mr Geddes said Deloitte's research showed half of food and non-food retailers "expect to have at least 41% of store estate open by the end of June", with the remaining half planning to reopen "between 81% and 100%".

Richard Green, retail partner at law firm Gowling WLG added a note of optimism: "A projected post-lockdown spike in activity, and in planning terms, the Christmas and New Year period, should go some way to helping re-balance the position of many."

It comes as British fashion house Burberry reported a 27% drop in comparable sales in the final quarter of its year.

The luxury brand said around 60% of its retail stores were closed, and the uncertain outlook has prompted it to pull its final dividend.

Burberry started to feel the pain as early as January, when the coronavirus pandemic hit China - one of its most important markets.

As the virus spread to Europe and North America, it saw significant losses in those regions, too.

Chief executive Marco Gobbetti said that before the virus, Burberry had been making strong progress, with sales growing ahead of expectations.

He added: "Since then, the global health emergency has had a profound impact on the world, our industry, and Burberry, but I am very proud of the way we have responded.

"It will take time to heal but we are encouraged by our strong rebound in some parts of Asia and are well-prepared to navigate through this period."

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