New data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) suggests that consumers were beginning to spend more in anticipation of the reopening of non-essential retail.

The government’s ONS released its monthly UK retail sales data, which suggests that economic recovery pre-dated the easing of the latest lockdown.

March saw a 5.4% increase in retail sales over the previous month, the report revealed.

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Sales were also 1.6% higher than in February 2020, before the country’s first lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Non-food stores saw the largest contribution to monthly growth in March 2021 sales volumes, the ONS said, aided by increases of 17.5% and 13.4% in clothing stores and other non-food stores respectively.

Despite strong March figures, retail sales for the first quarter of 2021 have been ‘subdued overall’ the ONS said.

In the three months to March 2021, retail sales volume fell by 5.8% by comparison to the previous three months, with declines in clothing stores and other non-food stores as a result of the tighter lockdown restrictions in place.

Meanwhile, the proportion spent online decreased to 34.7% in March, down from 36.2% in February 2021, but still above the 23.1% in March last year.

While the value of online spending last month did increase, the amount consumers spent in-store increased more.

This was followed up by the return of non-essential retail across England and Wales two weeks ago (12 April) and in Scotland today (26 April).

Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the British Retail Consortium, commented on the return of retail in England and Wales: “As we pass the one-year anniversary of the first lockdown, the retail industry has generally remained strong, despite numerous challenges. 2020 was a year like no other, with panic buying followed by a sharp decline in consumer spend, and then the first national lockdown which resulted in erratic retail sales.

“This makes a direct comparison challenging, so for a truer indication of where the industry stands, we changed our year-on-year comparisons for a two-year, pre-pandemic comparison period.

“March 2021 saw an 8.3% increase in spending compared to March 2019, which was largely driven by grocery spending.

“However, the majority of categories remain in decline, and fashion and footwear remain the hardest hit. Meanwhile, with many stores still closed, online purchases reached the highest on record, particularly for TVs, gaming consoles and laptops.

“Despite some product ranges trading well, the next six months will be make or break for many retailers.

“Over the past three lockdowns, non-food retail stores have lost £30 billion, so many retailers will be relying on growing consumer confidence, and a return to town and city centres to fuel their recovery.

“Retail businesses have spent hundreds of millions making their stores Covid-secure, so customers can feel safe and confident whilst shopping.

“We remind people to be considerate and respectful of other shoppers and hard-working retail staff so we can all safely enjoy our nation’s return to its stores.”

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Footfall doubles across UK after return of non-essential retail in England and Wales