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Online sales down in April compared to March as shoppers go in-store to buy – but still well ahead of the same time last year

The new normal in stores is also an opportunity (Image: Shutterstock)

UK online sales fell across all retail categories in April, compared to the previous month, as customers started to return to shops post-lockdown, official figures suggest. But they grew overall – and in most categories – compared to the same time last year.

Overall, 30% of retail sales took place online in April, down from 34.7% the previous month, says the ONS Retail Sales report for April 2021. Online sales fell by 5.6% compared to March, and grew by 31.9% compared to last April. And across all channels, UK retail sales grew by 9% compared to the previous month – by 37% on the same time last year, 

From April 12 onwards shops reopened in different markets of the UK, boosting both in-store sales and overall retail sales. The ONS report suggests that shoppers spent 9.1% more with UK retailers than they did in March on 9% more goods, excluding automotive fuel – and that they spent 37.9% more than they did in April last year on 37.7% more goods. Last April, however, retail sales fell sharply in the first national lockdown when the tightest restrictions were in place. The ONS says: “A more useful comparison is with February 2020, before the first lockdown. Total retail sales levels for both the amount spent and quantity bought were up 9.9% and 10.6% respectively compared with their pre-coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic February 2020 levels.”

How shoppers spent in-store

Spending across channels in non-food stores increased by 25.4% in April 2021 compared to March 2021 – suggesting shoppers went in-store to newly-opened non-essential shops to buy. Spending across sales channels grew strongly in the clothing, footwear and textiles category (+69.4%) compared to the previous month, but was 0.3% lower than in pre-pandemic February 2020. Spending on household goods grew by 10.2% in April compared to March, and by 19.7% in April compared to pre-pandemic February 2020. Department store sales rose by 4.7% in April compared to March and by 7.6% in compared to February 2020. 

At the same time, spending in food stores was slightly down – and in-supermarket sales fell for goods from clothing (-9.4%) to household goods (-4%). 

How shoppers spent online

The ONS report suggests that the pandemic has moved sales further online. Non-store retailing, a category dominated by pureplay retailers, this month reports online growth of 56% compared to pre-pandemic April 2019, as shoppers moved online to buy during Covid-19 lockdowns and restrictions affecting retail. 

Online sales fell by 5.6% compared to March, and grew by 31.9% compared to last April. Food ecommerce sales fell by 11.4% on last month – likely affected by the partial reopening of hospitality – but were 16.5% higher than a year ago. They accounted for 10.5% of retail sales in the category.

Non-food online sales fell by 9.8% on last month, and grew by 37.2% on the previous month, accounting for 28.2% of sales in the category. A quarter (25.5%) of department store sales were online – falling both compared to last month (-22.4%) and last year (-1.6%). 

In the clothing, footwear and textile category, almost a third (30%) of sales took place online, 6.3% lower than last month and 83.6% higher than last year. 

Some 30.8% of household goods sales were online, down by 7.1% on the previous month and up by 27.4% on last year, while 26.6% of sales at ‘other’ shops, from bookshops to jewellers and toy stores, were online last month – following a 5.9% decline on March and a 47.4% growth compared to last year. Some 81.9% of sales in the non-store retailing category that is dominated by pureplay retailers were online, with sales up by 0.3% on March, and up by 33.1% on April 2020. 

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