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Fashion was key in March, boosted UK retail as shoppers prepared for reopening

Apr 23, 2021

UK retail sales proved strong in March as consumers got ready for the end of lockdown by purchasing new clothes, official figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) showed on Friday. 


As well as consumers looking forward to socialising again soon, this may have been helped by the return of schools in England as parents bought new clothes and shoes for kids who’ve been studying at home for months. And as kids went back to school, some parents were also able to return to offices, potentially providing a boost to some categories that have struggled in the past year.

The figures showed clothing was a key beneficiary of the month’s spending as total retail sales volumes leapt by 5.4% compared to the month before, beating the 1.5% hike many analysts had expected. Sales by value rose 5.5%.

Sales were also 1.6% higher than February 2020, the last month before the impact of the coronavirus pandemic was felt. But volumes and values were down slightly compared to March 2020 (-0.5% and -1.1% respectively), which is unsurprising as the same month last year had contained several weeks before the first lockdown started.

While food store sales grew during the month, the ONS said non-food stores provided "the largest positive contribution to the monthly growth in March 2021 sales volumes, aided by strong increases of 17.5% and 13.4% in clothing stores and other non-food stores respectively”.

But while that 17.5% figure for clothing is a significant increase, sales volumes remained 41.5% below the level in February 2020 before the pandemic began. The ONS said that “feedback from retailers suggested that the impending relaxation of lockdown restrictions had prompted the increase this month”.

And as shoppers knew that physical stores would soon reopen, it’s perhaps also no surprise that the proportion spent online decreased to 34.7% in March, down from 36.2% in February. But it was still above the 23.1% reported in March 2020.

But online still continued to grow last month with department store e-sales up 37.7% year-on-year (but down 0.3% month-on-month). Textile, clothing and footwear stores saw 78.2% growth compared to a year earlier and 10.9% growth compared to February. 

Analysts saw the figures as a good sign. Chris Daly, CEO of the Chartered Institute of Marketing said: “With the end in sight for long-suffering non-essential shops, an increase in March’s retail sales helps put them on the front foot as bricks and mortar stores reopen. These figures are a clear sign that consumers are ready to spend and there is a big opportunity for the brands that get retail’s reopening right.”

Ian Geddes, head of retail at Deloitte, added: “With the UK recording its warmest March day in over 50 years, the arrival of spring sunshine was perfectly timed with new season collections, giving clothing and footwear sales a small boost. Eagle-eyed consumers may have even spotted the re-appearance of some 2020 collections, as retailers brought back stock impacted by the UK’s first lockdown. This is unlikely to put off consumers, however, many of whom have been buying fewer new products in an effort to adopt a more sustainable lifestyle during the pandemic.”

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