Retail sales improve from record lows in April but shops still suffering – ONS

Retailers saw a much-needed boost in sales last month compared with the record lows in April as lockdown turned thriving high streets into ghost towns, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

Sales volumes in May jumped 12% compared with the previous month, although they were still down 13.1% versus February, before the full impact of the coronavirus pandemic was felt.

Officials said non-food stores saw the biggest boost, helped with a 42% increase in household goods store sales and the reopening of more DIY and hardware stores.

B&Q resumed trading last month with huge queues of shoppers in car parks, desperate for a DIY fix, while Ikea reopened earlier this month, with hour-long lines of customers waiting to get in.

Online shopping hit a new high, making up 33.4% of all sales, compared with 30.8% in April, and fuel sales also rose as some employees started returning to work.

However, fuel sales remain 42.5% lower than February as governments across the UK continue to encourage people to maintain social distancing and avoid unnecessary travel. Oil prices have also tanked compared with a year ago as demand dries up.

On a three-month measure to May, the volume of retail sales decreased by a record 12.8%, with declines across all stores except food and non-store retailing, the ONS added.

Coronavirus – Mon Jun 1, 2020
Ikea reopened in June but other hardware and home improvements sites resumed trading in May, giving a boost to overall figures (Yui Mok/PA)

During the month, the ONS also found that the rate of growth in online-only retailers increased strongly, rising 24.3% in the three months to May and up 21% compared with April.

However, with households stockpiling food and home products in March, food stores saw a slight decline in the amount of goods sold – down 0.3% – as shoppers worked their way through the extra food in their cupboards.

The overall data was slightly skewed, however, due to fuel sales typically accounting for just over 10.4% of total retail sales – with most supermarkets selling fuel from forecourts on their retail sites.

However, in May it only accounted for 5.5% of total revenues. As travel restrictions eased in May, fuel sales rose 49.1% compared with April.

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