People in Great Britain rushed back to the shops in April to stock up on clothing and footwear after the easing of coronavirus lockdown restrictions, driving a 9.2% surge in retail sales over the month, according to official figures.
With all all non-essential retailers allowed to reopen from 12 April in England and Wales and from 26 April in Scotland after an almost four-month shutdown, clothes and shoe shops enjoyed an increase in sales of almost 70% compared with March levels.
The Office for National Statistics said the boom in sales across all sectors of the retail industry meant that the volume of goods bought in April was 10.6% higher than February 2020, before the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Household goods, which have proved to be in strong demand over the last year as people have sought to improve their homes, grew more modestly but the continuity in sales online kept volumes almost 20% higher than February 2020.
The rise in sales in bricks and mortar shops will cheer high street retailers but comes too late for Debenhams, which shut its doors last weekend, and a host of other retailers that have either gone bust or shrunk their estate of shops in the last year.
Online sales fell in most sectors in April as people opted to visit newly reopened shops but continue to make up about a third of all sales after a surge in activity during the pandemic.
Aled Patchett, the head of retail and consumer goods at Lloyds Banking Group, said: “April was always likely to see a further surge in sales as stores reopened for the first time in months – with fashion retailers the ultimate beneficiaries of beer gardens reopening and the rule of six night out returning.
“The high street will be hopeful that the re-emergence of indoor hospitality this week continues to bring shoppers back out in force to accelerate its recovery into the summer.”
He warned, though, that the presence of new variants of the coronavirus could push shoppers to rekindle online habits that have become so dominant over the past 12 months.
Paul Dales, the chief UK economist at the consultancy Capital Economics, said: “This may be the last big leap in retail sales but there is already evidence that the hospitality sector picked up the growth baton in May.”
A barometer of consumer confidence registered the return of pre-pandemic levels of faith among UK households in the economic outlook, signalling a further rise in spending in May, although this might be driven by people going back to the pubs, restaurants, cinemas and theatres rather than the high street.
Petrol stations were among the retailers to see a dramatic rise in customers after it became possible to visit family members and outdoor attractions, although sales still remain 10% below pre-pandemic levels.
In January the retail industry suffered the biggest fall in sales since 1995 as shops were forced to close as part of the UK’s third lockdown.