Retail sales, Great Britain: March 2021

A first estimate of retail sales in volume and value terms, seasonally and non-seasonally adjusted.

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Email Rhys Dalgleish

Dyddiad y datganiad:
23 April 2021

Cyhoeddiad nesaf:
21 May 2021

1. Main points

  • Retail sales volumes continued to recover in March 2021, with an increase of 5.4% when compared with the previous month reflecting the effect of the easing of coronavirus (COVID-19) restrictions on consumer spending; sales were 1.6% higher than February 2020 before the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

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

  • Food stores reported monthly growth of 2.5% in March 2021, with strong growth in specialist food stores (butchers and bakers) likely reflecting the continued closure of the hospitality sector during the Easter period.

  • Automotive fuel retailers also reported strong monthly growth of 11.1% as travel restrictions were eased towards the end of the reporting period.

  • Despite strong March figures, retail sales for the quarter have been subdued overall; in the three months to March 2021, retail sales volume fell by 5.8% when compared with the previous three months, with strong declines in both clothing stores and other non-food stores as a result of the tighter lockdown restrictions in place.

  • The proportion spent online decreased to 34.7% in March 2021, down from 36.2% in February 2021 but still above the 23.1% reported in March 2020; the value of online spending did increase in March, but spending in-store increased at a faster rate.

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2. Retail sales in March

Table 1 provides a snapshot of what happened in the retail sales industry in March 2021 with both value and volume growth rates.

The value of sales was 5.5% higher, and the quantity bought was up 5.4% when compared with February 2021. This signalled a continued recovery in the sector following the modest growth in February (2.2%), reflecting the effect of the easing of coronavirus (COVID-19) restrictions on consumer spending.

Estimates for both the amount spent and the quantity bought were higher in March 2021 than a year ago, when lockdown restrictions were first implemented. The amount spent increased by 7.3% and the quantity bought increased by 7.2% compared with the same month a year earlier.

Total retail sales levels for both the amount spent and quantity bought were lower than pre-pandemic levels in both January and February 2021, however, March marked a return to sales levels higher than those witnessed in February 2020, before the pandemic began, despite continued restrictions to non-essential retail.

The reporting period for the March publication covers 28 February 2021 to 3 April 2021; during this period there were widespread and extensive restrictions to non-essential retail in England, Scotland and Wales. However, some travel and social distancing restrictions were lifted at the end of March, as announced in roadmaps to ease restrictions.

Sales volumes increased in March 2021 by 5.4%, continuing the growth witnessed in February of 2.2%. The strongest growth was in clothing stores, other non-food stores and automotive fuel retailers of 17.5%, 13.4% and 11.1% respectively.

Whilst the 17.5% monthly growth in the clothing sector is a significant increase in sales volumes, they remain 41.5% below the level in February 2020 before the pandemic began. Feedback from retailers suggested that the impending relaxation of lockdown restrictions (meeting in private gardens and outdoor hospitality) had prompted the increase this month.

Within the other non-food store sector, the increase of 13.4% in March 2021 was driven by growth in a number of sectors including second-hand good stores, where auction houses reported an increase in sales of high-end items. Medical goods retailers also reported strong monthly growth of 29.4% with anecdotal evidence from retailers suggesting an increase in the purchase of mobility equipment from older consumers who were venturing out more following the vaccination rollout. Garden centres and retailers of plants and flowers reported monthly growth of 7.4%, with retailers reporting above average sales for this time of year attributed to an increased interest in gardening following lengthy lockdown periods.

Automotive fuel retailers witnessed an 11.1% growth in sales volumes in March 2021, the first monthly growth reported since a 0.1% rise in October 2020. Anecdotal evidence from retailers suggested the relaxation of travel restrictions on 29 March contributed to this. More analysis on sales volumes in the automotive fuel sector follows in Section 4.

More about economy, business and jobs

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3. Month-on-month contributions to growth by sector

Figure 2 shows the contribution to month-on-month retail sales growth in March 2021, with the amount spent 5.5% higher and the quantity bought up 5.4%.

Non-food stores were the largest positive contributor towards the monthly increase seen in both the amount spent and quantity bought, at 3.7 and 3.6 percentage points respectively. Clothing stores and other non-food stores were the main drivers behind this contribution.

Food stores also provided positive contributions of 0.9 and 1.0 percentage points for the amount spent and quantity bought respectively; with feedback from specialist food retailers in particular suggesting that the continued closure of the hospitality sector during the Easter period had boosted sales.

Automotive fuel also reported positive contributions of 1.1 and 0.9 percentage points for both the amount spent and quantity bought respectively.

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4. A closer look at automotive fuel

The volume of sales increased by 11.1% in March 2021 when compared with February 2021 in this sector. This was the first monthly growth in the volume of sales since October 2020 as travel restrictions once again had a strong negative effect on the sector, which has seen sales levels remain below those witnessed before the pandemic began.

The automotive fuel sector initially witnessed a severe fall in the volume of sales during the early coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic period. Sales declined rapidly in March and April 2020, with consecutive monthly falls of 18.5% and 51.8% respectively.

There then followed three months of rapid recovery as travel restrictions were eased during late spring and summer 2020, however, the levels of sales did not recover sufficiently to reach those observed before the pandemic. Anecdotal feedback from retailers in the sector suggested that the government guidance to work from home and consequently the reduction in commuter traffic had the most impact on sales volumes.

Restrictions in several parts of the country were reintroduced in November 2020 leading to another large monthly fall in sales of 16.6%. The slowdown in the sector continued until February 2021 with four consecutive monthly declines as government guidance was changed to "stay at home".

A large monthly increase of 11.1% was seen in March 2021 as government guidance relating to travel was eased again on 29 March; feedback from retailers suggested that this easing of restrictions prior to the Easter period prompted a large surge in demand.

According to Department for Transport (DfT) non-seasonally adjusted road traffic data, the volume of all motor vehicle traffic on Monday 29 March 2021 saw a weekly increase of 4 percentage points to 84% of the level seen on the Monday of the first week in February 2020.

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5. Online retail

Table 2 shows the month-on-month and year-on-year growth rates for the amount spent online by value, in addition to the proportion of online sales. The percentage weights indicate where money is spent online.

Online spending increased in March 2021, up 0.6% when compared with February 2021, with strong growth in textile, clothing and footwear stores of 10.9%. This was the largest monthly growth in the sector since June 2020 with feedback from retailers suggesting that the upcoming easing of coronavirus restrictions had prompted consumers to update their wardrobes in preparation for being able to meet friends and family outdoors again.

The proportion of online retail decreased in March 2021 to 34.7%, down from 36.2% in February 2021 but still remains far higher than the 23.1% reported in March 2020.

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6. Retail sales data

Retail Sales Index
Dataset | Released 23 April 2021
A series of retail sales data for Great Britain in value and volume terms, seasonally and non-seasonally adjusted.

Retail Sales pounds data
Dataset | Released 23 April 2021
Total sales and average weekly spending estimates for each retail sector in Great Britain in £ thousands.

Retail Sales Index internet sales
Dataset | Released 23 April 2021
Internet sales in Great Britain by store type, month and year.

Retail Sales Index categories and their percentage weights
Dataset | Released 23 April 2021
Retail sales categories and descriptions and their percentage of all retailing in Great Britain.

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7. Glossary

Value (amount spent)

The value estimates reflect the total turnover that businesses have collected over a standard period.

Volume (quantity bought)

The volume estimates are calculated by taking the value estimates and adjusting to remove the impact of price changes.

Seasonally adjusted

Seasonally adjusted estimates are derived by estimating and removing calendar effects (for example, Easter moving between March and April) and seasonal effects (for example, increased spending in December as a result of Christmas) from the non-seasonally adjusted (NSA) estimates.

Non-seasonally adjusted

Non-seasonally adjusted estimates refer to raw data where the effects of regular or seasonal patterns have not been removed.

Non-store retailing

Non-store retailing refers to retailers that do not have a store presence. While the majority is made up of online retailers, it also includes other retailers such as stalls and markets.

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8. Measuring the data

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) is publishing more data and analysis than ever before. We are constantly reviewing our publications based on your feedback to make sure that we continue to meet the needs of our users. As a result, future editions of this publication may focus more strongly on headline indicators and main messages. Thank you for your continued support.

This bulletin presents estimates of the quantity bought (volume) and amount spent (value) in the retail industry for the five-week period 28 February 2021 to 3 April 2021.

Unless otherwise stated, the estimates in this release are seasonally adjusted.

Retail sales collects turnover data from retailers, which is money through the till before any deductions, including refunded items. This provides us with the best indicator for consumer spending during the reference period.

The Retail Sales Index (RSI) measures the value and volume of retail sales in Great Britain on a monthly basis. Data are collected from 5,000 businesses in the retail industry, with all businesses employing over 100 people or with an annual turnover of more than £60 million receiving an online questionnaire every month. The survey's results are used to produce seasonally adjusted monthly, quarterly and annual estimates of output in the retail industry at current price and at chained volume measures (removing the effect of price changes).


More quality and methodology information on strengths, limitations, appropriate uses, and how the data were created is available in the Retail Sales QMI.

Seasonal adjustment

All seasonal adjustment parameters for our volume and value data, for all businesses and internet data time series, up to March 2021 have been reviewed. Many series are impacted by coronavirus (COVID-19)-related actions in March 2021 and previous months. Each series has been reviewed and the best adjustment for coronavirus-related effects applied. These may need to be revised further as additional data become available.

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9. Strengths and limitations

Uses and users

The Retail Sales Index (RSI) is an important economic indicator and one of the earliest short-term measures of economic activity. It is used in the compilation of the national accounts and widely used by private and public sector institutions, particularly by the Bank of England and HM Treasury to assist in informed decision- and policy-making.

Comparability with international data

The most recent international estimate of retail sales available for March 2021 was published by the United States Census Bureau on 15 April 2021. In its advanced monthly sales for retail and food services, March 2021 (PDF, 319KB) they include the amount spent in the United States retail industry, including motor vehicles and parts, and food services.

Data for Northern Ireland are published by the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA).

It should be noted that accurate comparisons cannot be made against these or other international statistics for a variety of reasons, including differences in methodology.

Eurostat also published their latest estimates of the Volume of retail trade (PDF, 518KB) across the European Union on 12 April 2021 for February 2021. This shows the seasonally adjusted volume of retail trade in both the euro area (EA19) and EU27 when compared with January 2021.

End of EU exit transition period

As the UK enters into a new Trade and Co-operation Agreement with the EU, the UK statistical system will continue to produce and publish our wide range of economic and social statistics and analysis. We are committed to continued alignment with the highest international statistical standards, enabling comparability both over time and internationally, and ensuring the general public, statistical users and decision-makers have the data they need to be informed.

As the shape of the UK's future statistical relationship with the EU becomes clearer over the coming period, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) is making preparations to assume responsibilities that, as part of our membership of the EU and during the transition period, were delegated to the statistical office of the EU, Eurostat. This includes responsibilities relating to international comparability of economic statistics, deciding what international statistical guidance to apply in the UK context and to provide further scrutiny of our statistics and sector classification decisions.

In applying international statistical standards and best practice to UK economic statistics, we will draw on the technical advice of experts in the UK and internationally, and our work will be underpinned by the UK's well-established and robust framework for independent official statistics, set out in the Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007. Further information on our proposals will be made available later this year.

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Manylion cyswllt ar gyfer y Bwletin ystadegol

Rhys Dalgleish
Ffôn: +44 (0)1633 455602