New statistics from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) have revealed that retail sales volumes in the UK recovered in March with an increase of 5.4% compared with February.

This beat expectations from retail experts, who told Reuters they had expected a month-on-month increase of only 1.5%.

The research also showed that the amount spent by shoppers last month increased by 7.3% year-on-year.

The ONS attributed the successful sales volumes in March to the easing of Covid-19 restrictions on consumer spending, despite non-essential stores not yet having reopened.

However, despite the strong figures for March, the quarter overall has seen subdued retail sales. In the three months to March 2021, retail sales volumes fell by 5.8% compared with the three months previously.

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By GlobalData

Online sales volume also fell, dropping to 34.7% in March compared with 36.2% in February 2021. However, the research showed that the value of online spending increased.

How did independent sectors perform?

Non-food stores provided the largest contribution to sales volume growth in March, with clothing stores increasing by 17.5% and other non-food stores increasing by 13.4%

Automotive fuel saw a volume of sales increase by 11.1% in March compared to February, marking March as first month-by-month growth in the fuel sector since October 2020. The sector also saw a rise of 1.1% in the amount spent and 0.9% in quantity bought.

Food stores, meanwhile, grew by 2.5% in March, especially in specialist food stores such as butchers and bakers, who credited this rise to Easter celebrations.

Online spending increased

Despite online retail use decreasing in March from February, it still remains 23.1% higher than March 2020.

Online spending also increased by 0.6% in March compared to February, with a strong growth of 10.9% observed in textile, clothing, and footwear stores. Some retail experts have attributed this to consumers updating their wardrobe, ready for the easing of lockdown restrictions.

Response to the figures

Capital Economics economist Paul Dales said: “March’s strong rise in retail sales showed that the economy made a fair bit of progress even before non-essential retailers reopened in April.”

E-commerce expert Opayo managing director Sean Wilson told Retail Insight Network: “This is an important moment for thousands of small and independent retailers reopening in towns and cities across the UK after months of lockdown restrictions.

“Retailers have been incredibly resilient and adaptable throughout the pandemic by moving to online operations, e-commerce platforms, and social media channels to continue serving their customers and processing orders. We were confident that consumers would want to shop in person again, and we’re helping retailers provide safe and efficient payment methods.

“With customers using e-commerce almost exclusively, businesses will need to find ways to blend their in-store and online offering to support their reopened high street presence.”