Pent-up savings trigger post-lockdown stampede on the high street

Britain’s retailers have enjoyed a surge in spending as shoppers flocked to high streets following the recent easing of lockdown restrictions that led to the reopening of “non-essential” stores.

Official figures show that sales in April jumped 9.2 per cent compared with March, with clothing retailers proving the main beneficiary, jumping 25.3 per cent month-on-month.

Shoppers focused on clothes for enjoying new freedoms, including outerwear and knitwear, compared with lockdown-period shopping habits of wearing comfortable clothes for being stuck indoors.

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The easing of travel restrictions also led to a spike in fuel sales, with petrol stations seeing a 69.4 per cent jump compared with March, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

'We expect the shift back to shopping in store to continue in May as more restrictions are eased' - Kevin Brown, savings specialist at Scottish Friendly. Picture: Jane Barlow/PA Wire

The UK-wide data follows Scottish retail figures earlier this week, which showed sales falling by a sixth last month on the comparable pre-pandemic trading period, despite a post-lockdown rush for new clothing and footwear.

Total sales fell by 15.6 per cent last month compared with April 2019, when they had increased by 4.4 per cent, according to the latest sales monitor from the Scottish Retail Consortium (SRC) and KPMG.

The latest ONS numbers showed that online retailers across all sectors saw a fall in sales as shoppers opted to ditch their computers and smartphones and head to the high street instead.

Compared with April 2020, during the first national lockdown which left high streets deserted, sales were up 43.4 per cent and were also up 9.9 per cent compared with the last month before the Covid-19 pandemic hit.

Despite shoppers returning to stores again, the ONS said it had seen long-term trends emerge from the pandemic that look set to stay.

It found online-only retailers were the biggest winners from the pandemic, with sales up 56 per cent compared with April 2019 and petrol station sales down 13.3 per cent compared with two years ago, as homeworking and reduced travelling hit the sector.

Kevin Brown, savings specialist at Scottish Friendly, said: “The long-awaited reopening of non-essential shops was always expected to bring a significant spike in sales but today’s figures are far better than expected.

“Retailers will feel great relief that consumers’ pent-up demand has translated into increased footfall and crucially sales.

Online shopping has boomed during the pandemic but the proportion of online sales made by retailers in all sectors fell in April.

“We expect the shift back to shopping in store to continue in May as more restrictions are eased. Many households have built up their cash reserves during the past 12 months with fewer opportunities to spend money and this should lead to a bumper summer of spending.”

Lisa Hooker, consumer markets leader at PwC, said: “There was good news across every category of retail, but particular relief for fashion retailers, which have been the hardest hit category of the high street, with a 27 per cent decline in sales in 2020, and which did not benefit from previous ‘unlockings’.

“Fashion sales recovered sharply in April, exceeding pre-pandemic levels for the first time, as consumers stocked up on new outfits in anticipation of going out.”

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