Retail sales fell at their fastest rate on record in March, with analysts warning that much worse is to come as the full impact of measures taken to stop the spread of the coronavirus is felt.

Total sales dropped 5.1 per cent on the previous month, and clothing suffering a 34.8 per cent fall, the Office for National Statistics said.

Lockdown began on 23 March, meaning the data includes only one week during which shops had been ordered to close.


Supermarket sales jumped 10.3 per cent and alcohol sales rose 32.6 per cent as pubs and restaurants closed and shoppers stocked up.

Online sales grew 8.3 per cent in March, with the value of food purchases up 17.9 per cent. Department stores offset some of their lost high-street sales with a 47.4 per cent rise in online revenues.

Overall, retail sales fell as increases in online shopping failed to make up for rapidly declining in-store purchases.

Rhian Murphy, head of retail sales at the ONS, said: “Retail sales saw their biggest monthly fall since records began over 30 years ago, with large declines in clothing and fuel only partially offset by strong food sales.

“Online-only retailers saw strong growth, though, with many high street stores also unsurprisingly seeing a boost to web sales.”

The figures will add to concerns about the future of British high streets, which had already been struggling before the coronavirus hit. Debenhams, Warehouse and Oasis are among the retailers to have called in administrators since temporarily closing their doors last month. Cath Kidston announced this week it would shut all of its 60 stores with the loss of more than 900 jobs.

Primark’s owner, Associated British Food, said on Monday that its sales had gone from £650m a month to zero. The budget fashion chain has furloughed 68,000 staff and has no online operation through which to sell its stock.

Closure of stores is not the only big concern for retailers who also have to contend with record-low consumer confidence.

With more than 11 million people expected to be either unemployed or placed on furlough, there is little sign of that situation improving in the immediate future.

Fiona Cincotta, financial market analyst at Gain capital, said: “The data only captures the start of the lockdown, so we know these figures are going to get a lot worse.

“Added to that, without a vaccine it is highly unlikely that there will be a quick rebound in the retail sector.

“Even when the UK starts to ease lockdown restrictions and reopen its economy, there will almost certainly be restrictions on shops, with limits to customer numbers at any one time.”

Lisa Hooker, consumer markets leader at PricewaterhouseCoopers, said sales might have been higher if supermarkets had been able to ramp up their online deliveries quickly enough to meet customers’ needs.

“With only a 20 per cent rise in online grocery sales despite the prime minister encouraging us to ‘use food delivery services where you can’, this suggests that operators are hampered by limited capacity in the face of increased demand, and this number could have been even higher,” she said.

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