Retail sales slide ahead of coronavirus impact but online bucks the trend

Responding to the latest retail sales figures for March issued today by the Office of National Statistics, Ryan Broomfield, partner and retail specialist at RSM said:

The latest retail sales figures for March reflect the start of a significant downturn in UK consumer spend. The effects of coronavirus and lockdown saw the quantity of sales fall sharply by 5.1 per cent and the value of sales dropped by 5.7 per cent compared to the previous year. 

‘With empty toilet roll shelves making headlines as early as the first week in March, it’s no surprise that food stores saw record growth and were up by 10.4 per cent as the nation stockpiled in anticipation of lockdown. It would be wrong to think that the supermarkets are cashing in on coronavirus though. No one is safe in the current crisis. The supermarkets are under pressure too with increased staff, distribution and store expenses. Sales have also largely focused on lower margin goods. 

‘Alcohol sales saw momentous growth in both volume and value at 31.4 per cent and 32.6 per cent, respectively. With all pubs and restaurants shut, it seems consumers are enjoying a tipple at home. This could be some welcome news for brewers and distilleries with both wholesale operations and physical sites and might just help them weather the storm. 

‘Online sales reached a record high of 22.3 per cent of sales in the sector in March 2020 with people staying at home even before lockdown. We should expect a further lift in April sales as consumers settle into the “new-normal”, but with some online-only retailers ceasing operations during lockdown, it’s clear that very few businesses will emerge unscathed.  Any business with loose ends weighing on performance will get found out. The soundness of underlying business structures will be critical to survival.’

‘Clothing stores saw a sharp decline in sales at a negative 34.8 per cent when compared with the previous month and a negative 28.4 per cent year on year. This is concerning but not surprising – fashion will be one of the hardest hit sectors. It’s been tough all round for fashion retailers with some core online-only brands shutting down operations as pressure mounted around concerns for the safety of warehouse workers.  


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