Spending on home improvements and garden furniture in February, in preparation for the restart of outdoor socialising next week, helped the retail sector stage a modest comeback during the UK’s third lockdown.
Retail sales increased by 2.1% in February from the previous month but the industry continued to struggle, with all non-essential high street shops forced to remain closed.
The Office for National Statistics said the partial recovery from a 8.2% slump in January kept sales in the retail sector 3.7% lower than a year earlier and would have fallen further without a bounce in online sales at department stores.
City economists had expected a more modest annual fall of 3.5%.
Jonathan Athow, the deputy national statistician for economic statistics at the ONS, said: “Despite national restrictions, retail sales partially recovered from the hit they took in January.
“Food and department stores benefited from essential retail remaining open, with budget-end department stores seeing increased sales.
“Household goods also fared well, with feedback suggesting spending on home improvement and outdoor products boosted sales as consumers prepared for an easing of lockdown restrictions.
“However, clothing stores continue to struggle with sales down more than half on their pre-pandemic level.”
Analysts said this drop tallied with inflation data released earlier in the week, which showed that fashion outlets had slashed prices further in February after a steep fall in sales during January.
James Smith, an economist at ING, said: “With the country still in lockdown, none of this is too surprising, and it’s worth saying that overall sales are down only around 4% on pre-virus levels, a marked improvement on what we saw last spring.
“Experience of lockdowns also tells us that it will probably only take a matter of weeks for sales to return – or exceed – pre-virus levels once the shops reopen.”
With many shop owners, and especially those that rely on high street sales, saying they are on the brink of going bust, the figures showed that online sales kept the sector afloat, with the proportion of sales made online increasing to 37.9% after 4.6% increase from January.
Lynda Petherick, the head of retail at the consultancy Accenture UKI, said February’s figures showed there were early signs of brighter days ahead for retailers.
“However, we are still a long way off from recovering to numbers compared with this time last year. With the April reopening date for non-essential retail still on the cards, retailers will be planning how they can make the most of pent-up consumer demand this spring and beyond.”
The impact of the UK’s third lockdown on the economy has not been as severe as the 22% drop in the first lockdown last April after the bulk of British employers adapted to working online.
The government is expected to allow all non-essential shops to open on 12 April, as part of its policy of opening up the economy gradually between now and June.