High street washout in May masks 'divergence of fortunes' for Britain's retailers - official figures

UK retailers suffered a setback last month as a drop in food sales offset gains seen by non-essential stores after their post-lockdown reopening.

Overall sales in May dipped 0.8 per cent in value compared with April, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

The fall compared with a 9.2 per cent jump between April and March following the reopening of clothes and non-food stores across England and Wales on April 12 and on April 26 in Scotland.

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May’s dip was driven by supermarkets and other food sellers, which suffered a 5.7 per cent drop in sales volumes, as people opted for eating out as pubs and restaurants were reopening for business.

One of the wettest Mays on record was an unfortunate blow for the high street. Picture: David Mirzoeff/PA Wire
One of the wettest Mays on record was an unfortunate blow for the high street. Picture: David Mirzoeff/PA Wire

Earlier this week, the latest sales monitor from the Scottish Retail Consortium (SRC) and KPMG showed that while stores continued to benefit from the relaxation of lockdown restrictions, there was a 3.6 per cent fall in total sales in May, compared with the same month in 2019, prior to the pandemic.

Commenting on the ONS figures, Lisa Hooker, consumer markets leader at PwC, said: “The headline figures mask a divergence of fortunes between different retailers. We have already seen that the recovery in footfall is skewed more heavily towards out-of-town retail parks rather than high streets and traditional shopping centres.”

Euan Murray, relationship director, Barclays Corporate Banking, Scotland, said: “Pent-up consumer demand will be key to the success of UK retail in the months ahead, but as lockdown continues to ease we are seeing retailers’ share of wallet reduce slightly as the public enjoys more and more choice on where to spend their hard-earned pounds.

“As hospitality lockdown restrictions in Scotland have gradually eased there has been a surge in sales for both fashion and health and beauty products – with people ditching their lockdown pyjamas and loungewear, in favour of designer shirts and summer dresses. However, food and drink sales have consequently fallen – with many now spending in pubs and restaurants, rather than filling their fridges.”

Furniture and hardware stores proved especially popular in May, with sales in their “household goods” sector rising 9 per cent. Non-food sales volumes generally increased by 2.3 per cent, the ONS added.

Clothes shops reported a decline of 2.5 per cent, while department stores saw sales slip 6.7 per cent.

Fuel sales were up 6.2 per cent as lockdown easing unlocked people’s travel plans.

Online retailers have been one of the biggest winners throughout the pandemic, as they were able to get goods to customers when high streets were closed.

The value of retail sales online was 58.8 per cent higher in May 2021 than in February 2020, despite a 5.7 per cent dip over the last month.

Aled Patchett, head of retail and consumer goods at Lloyds Bank, said: “One of the wettest Mays on record was another unfortunate blow for the high street, which has seen shoppers return in good – if not full – force since April’s re-opening.

“However, the end of the heatwave looks particularly prophetic, with the UK government’s decision to extend Covid restrictions by a further four weeks painting a gloomier outlook for those brands preparing to accelerate their recoveries.”

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