Retail sales slide over Christmas as Omicron variant hits high street

January 21, 2022

Retail sales fell by a worse than expected 3.7% last month as the Omicron variant was blamed for keeping shoppers away.

The month-on-month decline in sales volumes reported by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) follows a strong November, when some consumers chose to make Christmas purchases early.

It was significantly worse than the 0.6% drop that had been pencilled in by forecasters and highlighted the pressure on businesses created by the variant - and restrictions designed to tackle its spread - over the key festive season.

Sales were also 0.9% down compared with the previous COVID-hit festive season a year earlier.

A fall in petrol and diesel sales, due to more people working from home under Plan B rules, also contributed to the slump.

The December 2021 figure was the worst month-on-month decline since last January when Britain was coming under a tough new lockdown.

Heather Bovill, ONS deputy director for surveys and economic indicators, said: "After strong pre-Christmas trading in November, retail sales fell across the board in December, with feedback from retailers suggesting Omicron impacted on footfall."

The figures showed that non-food store sales - including department stores and clothing retailers - suffered a 7.1% fall while food store volumes were off by 1%.

Online sales were slightly higher as a proportion of the total, at 26.6%, than they were in November, at 26.3%, according to the ONS.

For 2021 as a whole, retail sales were up by 5.1% - a level of growth that has not been higher since 2002.

However that follows a 1.8% decline in 2020 when the pandemic took hold. Compared with 2019, annual retail sales last year were up by a more modest 3.2%.

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