Retail sales in March nosedived in biggest fall on record

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Retail sales nosedived in March at the fastest rate on record as the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic hit hard, shows new research.

With a lockdown introduced, total sales were down by 4.3% year-on-year – showing the sharpest decline since records started in January 1995 when excluding distortions – the BRC (British Retail Consortium)-KPMG retail sales monitor said.

It also warned that worse figures could still emerge.

Sales rollercoastered before and after stricter social distancing measures were introduced from March 23.

An “unprecedented surge” in demand for food and essentials earlier in the month was followed by a steep drop-off in sales as high streets became deserted.

And while fashion sales went into hibernation, demand for computers, games and fitness equipment increased as families adjusted to life at home.

In the first three weeks of March, total retail sales grew by 12%.

But during the two weeks after lockdown, they fell by 27%.

On a like-for-like basis, retail sales in March decreased by 3.5% compared with March 2019.

Over the three months to March, in-store sales of non-food items declined by 13%, which the report said was the result of the closure of “non-essential” stores.

During the same three-month period, food sales increased more strongly than the longer-term average.

Online non-food sales also increased more strongly in March than the longer-term average, as people spent more time at home.

Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the BRC, said: “In March, the necessary measures to fight the spread of coronavirus led to the worst decline in retail sales on record.

“Furthermore, the headline figure masked even more dramatic swings: food and essentials faced an unprecedented surge in demand in the early part of March, only to drop significantly into negative growth after the lockdown and introduction of social distancing in stores.

“The closure of non-essential shops led to deserted high streets and high double-digit declines in sales which even a rise in online shopping could not compensate for. Sales of computers and accessories, board games, and fitness equipment all rose sharply as a result of the move to home-schooling and work-from-home. In contrast, demand for the latest fashion ranges significantly declined.”

She said the retail industry is at the epicentre of the crisis “and the tremors will be felt for a long while yet” – with millions of livelihoods depending on Government support.

Ms Dickinson said: “Many physical non-food retailers have been forced to shut down entirely or to limit themselves to online-only to protect customers and staff.

“Consequently, hundreds of thousands of jobs at are risk within these companies and their supply chains. At the same time, supermarkets brace themselves for lower sales, while still spending huge sums on protective measures, donating to food banks and hiring tens of thousands of temporary staff. We welcome the Government’s actions to date, yet millions of livelihoods rely on their continued support.”

Paul Martin, UK head of retail at KPMG, said: “Retail sales experienced a historic drop in March, with Covid-19 changing the consumer landscape significantly.

“Lockdown has prompted a fundamental rethink of what is deemed essential. Total sales may ‘only’ be down 4.3%, but the sharp divide between food and non-food, and between physical and online, is far more drastic. Also, the UK’s closure of non-essential stores only started at the backend of the month, so it’s likely worse data is yet to emerge.

“Staying home has seen a surge in sales of food and drink; computing equipment, toys to keep children entertained, and unsurprisingly health-related goods too. Yet our high streets are completely void of footfall, and non-food categories like fashion have been forced into hibernation.”

He added: “Non-essential retailers have had to immediately address cash preservation and liquidity, furlough parts of their workforce and understand how to access various Government support schemes. Meanwhile, essential retailers have focused on stabilising their supply chain and product availability, whilst focusing on the safety and welfare of their employees and customers.

“An uncertain future lies ahead and the industry’s reset button has clearly been pressed.”

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