The value of retail sales for September increased by 1.4% and the volume of retail sales increased by 1.5% compared with August, marking it as the fifth consecutive month in which growth occurred, according to figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

Sale volumes are 5.5% higher than they were in February before the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic.

According to the ONS, the three months to September saw the biggest quarterly sales volume increase on record, increasing 17.4% compared with the previous three months.

Non-food retail saw the largest growth, except for fuel sales which remain 8.6% lower than they were in February.

Breaking down the figures

The total volume of sales of food retailers was 3.7% higher in September than in August. This is higher than it was in February but not as high as when sales peaked in March, which food retailers say happened due to panic buying at the start of the pandemic. Industry experts theorise that the figures for food retail remained so high throughout the pandemic because of restrictions being placed on other food services, such as pubs and restaurants.

Non-food retailers were negatively affected by Covid-19 at first, seeing a sharp decline in sales volumes from February to April, but they are now 1.7% higher than they were in February. Of these retailers, clothing sales have performed the worst, remaining 12.7% lower than February.

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By GlobalData

However, sales volumes for household goods stores increased by 11% compared with February’s figures. Feedback from these stores indicates that DIY and electric goods have been doing especially well and “helped with the recovery of sales”.

Fuel sales remain below pre-pandemic levels

Fuel was the only sector that has not surpassed February’s figures in terms of its volume of sales, with September’s volume of sales 8.6% lower than pre-pandemic.

According to the ONS, when lockdown eased earlier this year, the UK saw an increase in travel and the quantity of fuel bought. “However, as many people remained working at home and with certain restrictions still in place, fuel sales were yet to fully recover.”

Statistics from the Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) showed that the average road fuel sales in the week ending 20 September 2020 were at 92% of that of a “typical week” before lockdown.

Consumers are returning to brick-and-mortar stores

The ONS statistics also showed that online sales are still performing well and are higher than pre-lockdown levels, however, the proportion of online spending is decreasing each month.

Retail experience agency Stellar founder Anna Brettle told Retail Insight Network that shoppers have started returning to brick-and-mortar stores after having relied on online shopping throughout the pandemic.

Brettle said: “There’s no surprise that the latest ONS statistics show that shoppers are returning to physical stores. Online shopping has provided consumers with convenience throughout the global pandemic, but people still crave that human connection and experience that they associate with shopping at brick-and-mortar stores that have been missed during lockdown.

“But despite this expected growth, it’s important that retailers focus relentlessly on continuously improving their offering across e-commerce channels and physical stores. Those that ensure they focus on the customer experience both online and in-store seek to reap the benefits especially with the gifting season upon us.”

Business and consumers are eager to “get the UK economy moving again”

Payment solutions company SumUp Europe executive vice president Alex von Schirmeister told Retail Insight Network that these figures show that the country is eager to return to brick-and-mortar shopping.

Schirmeister said: “Following months with little options outside of the essentials, it is no wonder the British public has been keen to get out and remind themselves of the wide variety of retailers which make up their local high street. Not just the big chains, but the independent retailers too.

“This latest data from the ONS, as well as our own, shows that there is a huge willingness from both businesses and consumers to get the UK economy moving again. Our own Barometer data points towards an increase in transactions for merchants in beauty, barber and fitness sectors between August and September.”

Schirmeister also noted that it is important that retailers are prepared for further future lockdown restrictions.

They said: “What is important going forward, however, is the readiness of these retailers to deal with the introduction of the tiered lockdowns over the last few weeks.

“Our recent consultation with over 1,000 of our small businesses across Europe revealed that 67% of UK small business owners are prepared for more restrictions, while 10% currently feel ‘unprepared’ for what may be coming next.

“Let’s hope that consumers can reward that preparedness with their continued economic support – all while keeping to the rules.”