Retail sales, Great Britain: May 2021

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

Nid hwn yw'r datganiad diweddaraf. Gweld y datganiad diweddaraf

Email Rhys Dalgleish

Dyddiad y datganiad:
18 June 2021

Cyhoeddiad nesaf:
23 July 2021

1. Main points

  • Retail sales volumes declined by 1.4% between April and May 2021 following a sharp increase in April when retail restrictions were eased; despite the monthly decline, over April and May combined, average total retail sales volumes were still 7.7% higher than in March 2021, and were 9.1% higher than in February 2020 before the impact of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

  • The largest contribution to the monthly decline in May 2021 came from food stores where sales volumes fell by 5.7%; anecdotal evidence suggests the easing of hospitality restrictions had had an impact on sales as people returned to eating and drinking at locations such as restaurants and bars.

  • Non-food stores reported a 2.3% increase in monthly sales volumes in May 2021 with household goods stores (for example, hardware and furniture stores) and “other” non-food stores reporting the largest growth of 9.0% and 7.7% respectively.

  • The large increase in sales volumes in April, followed by a relatively small fall in May, has resulted in the volume of sales for the three months to May 2021 being 8.3% higher than in the previous three months; there was strong growth in automotive fuel sales and non-food retailers of 19.3% and 17.8% respectively.

  • The proportion of retail sales conducted online remains substantially higher than before the pandemic, but in May all retail sectors, with the exception of food stores, reported a fall in their proportions of online sales as consumers returned to physical stores; the total proportion of sales online decreased to 28.5% in May 2021, down from 29.8% in April 2021.

  • In comparison with February 2020, the value of total online retail sales in May 2021 was 58.8% higher, whereas in-store sales were 1.3% lower.

  • Retail sales volumes in May 2021 were 24.6% higher than in May 2020, which was affected by the first national lockdown when the tightest restrictions were in place; however, these growth rates are distorted by base effects and are not a reliable guide.

Nôl i'r tabl cynnwys

2. Retail sales in May

Monthly retail sales volumes fell by 1.4% between April and May 2021 but total retail sales were up 9.1% when compared with their pre-coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic February 2020 levels.

The strongest monthly declines in sales volumes in May came from food stores and non-store retailers of 5.7% and 4.2% respectively as both sectors were affected by the easing of restrictions for hospitality and non-essential retail.

Conversely, non-food stores continued to report monthly sales volumes growth of 2.3% in May 2021 following growth of 25.6% in April signalling the continued recovery of this retail sector, which was most affected by physical store closures.

Automotive fuel sales increased by 6.2% from April 2021, as people continued to increase their amount of travel.

Table 1 provides more details of what happened in the retail sales industry in May 2021 with both value and volume growth rates.

The pattern of sales is similar in both value and volume, down 0.8% and 1.4% respectively when compared with April 2021, however growth in the latest three months compared with the previous three months is 9.0% and 8.3% respectively caused by steep growth in April; this reflects the impact of the reopening of all non-essential retail stores.

The amount spent increased by 27.0% and the quantity bought increased by 24.6% when compared with May 2020. However, percentage change over the past year should be interpreted with caution because of base effects; the base month was affected by large falls in retail sales during the first national lockdown, when the tightest restrictions were in place.

More about economy, business and jobs

Nôl i'r tabl cynnwys

3. Retail sales by sector

Food stores

Food store sales volumes declined by 5.7% in May 2021 following a decline of 0.9% in the previous month. Despite these declines, food store sales remain higher than their pre-pandemic level, with sales in May 2021 2.6% higher than in February 2020.

Feedback from retailers suggested that sales were negatively affected in May by both the reopening of all retail sectors and the relaxation of hospitality restrictions, with specialist retailers of alcoholic drinks and tobacco reporting a monthly decline of 8.4%.

Non-food stores

While non-food stores as a whole saw monthly sales volumes increase by 2.3% in May 2021, there were contrasting pictures within the sector. Household goods stores reported monthly growth of 9.0% and anecdotal evidence from retailers suggested increased spending on outdoor garden furniture in preparation for the summer and the relaxation of social gathering rules.

Other non-food stores (such as chemists, toy stores and sports equipment stores) also reported monthly growth of 7.7% in all sub sectors, with the exception of flowers, plants and seeds reporting monthly growth as the sector continued to recover following the extensive restrictions earlier in the year.

Clothing and department stores both reported monthly declines of 2.5% and 6.7% respectively. However, both declines follow strong growth in previous months and the three month on three month growth to May 2021 highlights the continued recovery in these sectors with growth of 28.9% and 12.6% respectively.

Non-store retailing (retailers with no physical store presence)

Non-store retailers reported a monthly decline of 4.2% in May 2021, with feedback from retailers suggesting the reopening of physical stores had had an impact on sales volumes. However, sales remain much higher than their pre-pandemic level, with volumes in May 2021 46.0% higher than in February 2020.

Automotive fuel

Automotive fuel sales grew by 6.2% when compared with the previous month, continuing the recovery witnessed in April (growth of 10.6%) as the relaxation of lockdown measures increased people’s travel. However, sales continue to remain 4.3% lower than February 2020 before the impact of the pandemic.

Nôl i'r tabl cynnwys

4. 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 (for example, 48 pence in every pound spent online was spent through non-store retailers in 2020).

Online spending values decreased in May 2021 by 5.7% when compared with April 2021, with all sectors reporting monthly falls in their online sales. Feedback from retailers suggested that the easing of retail restrictions had affected online sales as consumers returned to physical stores.

This resulted in a decline in the proportion of retail spending online values which fell to 28.5% from 29.8% in April 2021. This is the third consecutive monthly fall in the proportion of online spending. However, the proportion of spending online is still significantly higher than the 19.9% reported in February 2020 before the impact of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

Despite the recent fall in proportion of retail sales being online, the pattern of sales is different to pre-pandemic patterns. The value of retail sales online in May 2021 was 58.8% higher than in February 2020, whereas the value of retail sales in store in May 2021 was 1.3% lower than in February 2020.

Nôl i'r tabl cynnwys

5. Retail sales data

Retail Sales Index
Dataset | Released 18 June 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 18 June 2021
Total sales and average weekly spending estimates for each retail sector in Great Britain in £ thousands.

Retail Sales Index internet sales
Dataset | Released 18 June 2021
Internet sales in Great Britain by store type, month and year.

Retail Sales Index categories and their percentage weights
Dataset | Released 18 June 2021
Retail sales categories and descriptions and their percentage of all retailing in Great Britain.

Nôl i'r tabl cynnwys

6. 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.

Nôl i'r tabl cynnwys

7. Measuring the data

Office for Statistics Regulation (OSR) publishing review

The Office for Statistics Regulation (OSR) is undertaking a review into whether the 9:30am release time stated in the Code of Practice for Statistics meets the needs of users. During the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, exemptions were granted to allow the release of market sensitive statistics at 7:00am. OSR welcomes views about the release time of official statistics by Friday 25 June 2021, please send comments to


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

Seasonal adjustment

All seasonal adjustment parameters for our volume and value data, for all businesses and internet data time series, up to May 2021 have been reviewed. Many series are affected by coronavirus (COVID-19)-related actions in May 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.

Nôl i'r tabl cynnwys

8. 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 April 2021 was published by the United States Census Bureau on 15 June 2021. In its advanced monthly sales for retail and food services, May 2021 (PDF, 354KB) it includes 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, 488KB) across the EU on 4 June 2021 for April 2021. This shows the seasonally adjusted volume of retail trade in both the euro area (EA19) and EU27 when compared with March 2021.

Nôl i'r tabl cynnwys

Manylion cyswllt ar gyfer y Bwletin ystadegol

Rhys Dalgleish
Ffôn: +44 (0)1633 455602