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Consumer spending declines 6% in March as coronavirus measures take effect, yet some retailers see strong growth

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Consumer spending dropped 6.0% year-on-year in March as measures to tackle coronavirus were introduced, according to data from Barclaycard.

Analysis of nearly half of the nation’s credit and debit card transactions handled by the payment company, reveals that spending on essential items rose by 11.6%.

Supermarket purchases drove much of this growth, with the category increasing by 21.3%, while fuel saw a 4.2% decline as the roads became quieter.

Spending on non-essentials was down 12.9%, with many retailers impacted by the introduction of social distancing measures. Travel expenditure – which includes public transport – declined by 40.5%, while restaurants and bars, pubs & clubs contracted 35.5% and 22.2% respectively.

Despite the unprecedented challenges faced by UK retailers, there were some bright spots as consumers changed their shopping behaviour. Spending at specialist food and drink stores, such as off licences and greengrocers, grew by 30.5% as more than half (55%) of Brits chose to buy locally and support independent businesses.

Discount stores also saw increased demand as shoppers sought value for money, rising 25.2% while pharmacy, health & beauty was up 0.5%.

More time at home led to digital content and subscription spend rising 17.4% as people entertained themselves by playing digital games, watching boxsets and accessing streaming services. 

Online purchases increased by 5.5% in March, while in-store transactions on the other hand, dropped 4.0%.

The week before tighter social distancing measures were put in place (16th – 22nd March) saw some particularly high peaks in consumer spending, as the nation prepared to spend more time inside. 

In a tumultuous month, consumer confidence dropped to its lowest level since Barclaycard started this survey six years ago, with just 25% of UK adults feeling positive about the state of the UK economy – down 17 percentage points from February. Confidence in job security declined 6% to 43%, suggesting concern about the months to come.

However, UK consumers continue to be resolute about their own financial situation, with 68% remaining positive about their household finances, broadly in line with last month. This could be attributed to the fact that 56% said that they were saving money by avoiding the pub, eating out and commuting less.

A positive side effect of social distancing is the growth in community spirit, with four in 10 (41%) UK adults checking in on vulnerable neighbours to see if they need help with shopping. In another sign of goodwill, 71% chose not to stockpile food, medical suppliers and other essential items so that others wouldn’t be left empty-handed.

Esme Harwood, Director at Barclaycard, says: “The coronavirus pandemic continues to impact everyday life in the UK, and this is naturally reflected in where and how Brits are spending their money. It’s no surprise that essential spend has increased as tighter movement restrictions have meant consumers are largely staying indoors, and therefore unable to visit the high-street, socialise in person, or travel.”

Harwood does offer some hope: “Despite these turbulent times, it’s positive to see that many Brits remain resilient about their own household finances. It’s also heartening to see communities supporting each other – whether clapping for the NHS, checking on vulnerable neighbours or supporting local businesses.”

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