Retail sales rose in March as the UK marked a year from the start of the first Covid-19 lockdown but most categories remained in decline, industry figures showed.
Total sales increased 8.3% from the same month in 2019, outstripping the three-month average rise of 2.7%, the British Retail Consortium said. Like-for-like sales rose 8.4%.
The figures suggest there was pent-up demand for retail purchases with non-essential shops closed from early January and throughout the period covered. Visits to stores more than tripled on Monday morning after restrictions on those stores were lifted, a snap survey showed.
The overall increase masked big variations in the fortunes of retailers during the pandemic with eight out of the survey’s 13 categories in decline. Sales of food, computing and household appliances shot up as people spent more time at home. For the same reason, sales of fashion and beauty items and clothes remained in double-digit decline in March.
The BRC warned that many retailers would remain under pressure as stores reopen after running down reserves or increasing debts during the lockdowns. Many store groups face big bills for deferred taxes and loans taken out to survive the pandemic and the government is due to withdraw its job support programme after September.
Helen Dickinson, the BRC’s chief executive, said: “The next six months will be make or break for many retailers. Over the past three lockdowns, non-food retail stores have lost £30bn so many retailers will be relying on growing consumer confidence, and a return to town and city centres to fuel their recovery.”
Some economists have predicted a mini-consumer boom as pent-up demand and savings amassed during the crisis are unleashed if the economy opens up as planned by late June. Stores of retailers such as JD Sports and Primark had big queues on Monday morning.
Paul Martin, KPMG’s UK head of retail, said: “As we enter the next stage of the government’s roadmap to recovery this month, high streets across the country will be hoping that pent up demand from consumers will be released and cash registers will start to ring again. Government support packages will provide some relief to struggling retailers until after the summer, but conditions will continue to be incredibly challenging as they face thinner margins and rising costs.”
The BRC’s survey compared March 2021 with two years earlier because the first lockdown started in March 2020, distorting the figures.