Coronavirus: UK retail sales suffered record-breaking fall in April

Lianna Brinded
Head of Yahoo Finance UK
Photo: Getty

British retail sales cratered by 18.1% in April from March — the biggest fall since records began in 1988 — due to the impact from the coronavirus pandemic.

Data from the Office for National Statistics showed that in the full month since the UK government placed the nation under lockdown, leading to the shuttering of shops, restaurants, and other businesses, the drop in sales was significantly worse than the 16% drop expected by a Reuters poll of economists.

This chart sums up how the lockdown pushed retail sales off a cliff:

Source: Office for National Statistics – Monthly Business Survey – Retail Sales Inquiry

“High street retailers have never experienced a fall in sales this dramatic before but there is light at the end of the tunnel with the Government’s announcement that non-essential retail stores can provisionally start to re-open in June,” said Lee Lucas, principal and CEO of the Fashion Retail Academy.

“In fact, with summer holidays abroad not going ahead as planned, fashion retailers could be the unexpected winners from the biggest staycation the UK has ever seen.

READ MORE: Coronavirus: UK borrowed record £62.1bn in April to battle COVID-19 crisis

“After months of lockdown, customers will be relishing the chance to enjoy familiar activities again and that will include putting a bit of retail therapy back in their lives. 

“When shops closed in March, retailers did not know how long their doors would remain shut. The announcement that June could mark a turning point has given them a target to focus on and, more importantly, time to alter working practices to adhere to social distancing guidelines and ensure stores are operating with enhanced health and safety measures in place.” 

Non-food stores saw the largest monthly declines:

  • Medical goods: -67.6%

  • Watches and jewellery: -65.8%

  • Second-hand goods: -64.9%

Source: Office for National Statistics – Monthly Business Survey – Retail Sales Inquiry

Clothing sales also plummeted by over 50% when compared with March 2020, which had already fallen by nearly 35% on the month.

ONS said that while all sectors saw a monthly decline in volume sales, there were exceptions: a record increase in sales for non-store retailing at 18.0% and a continued increase in sales for alcohol stores at 2.3%.