Coronavirus (COVID-19): shutdown triggers biggest monthly fall in UK retail sales

Patrick Mitchell-Fox
Senior Retail Analyst

Date : 16 April 2020

The latest release from the British Retail Consortium Retail Sales Monitor (BRC-RSM), shows that UK retail sales fell by 4.3% in March, the largest monthly drop in the history of the measure. While sales in supermarkets saw an exceptional peak in the month, large elements of non-food sales fell away sharply, even before the general shutdown announced on 23 March. Then thereafter many non-food sectors saw sales reduced to a trickle.

Three-month trend in food & grocery boosted to +5.1%

Including weeks in March where the surge in consumer demand drove supermarket sales as high as +50%, the food and grocery sector saw a rapid acceleration in its 12-week growth rate, transforming what had been a fairly muted trend in January and February. However, following the peaks of stockpiling and the introduction of strict social distancing in stores growth slackened substantially with the market value returning to something more recognisably ‘normal’. Even so with the effects of the initial market turbulence of the pandemic still being felt, we may be some way from knowing exactly what the actual shape of the ‘new normal’ for the food and grocery sector is.

Online becoming the almost exclusive channel for non-food

Unsurprisingly with shoppers first shunning, and then being excluded from, stores, traffic to online sites for non-food sales also saw a significant jump in March, up nearly 19%. In a month, online participation in total non-food sales rose by over 12 percentage points to reach the unprecedented level of 43.5%. For many non-food sectors online participation was at, or above, 50%, with this only likely to rise significantly further in April, the first full month of the shutdown.

Susan Barratt, Chief Executive, IGD commented:

‘UK grocery retailers faced an unprecedented series of challenges in March, and along with suppliers and logistics partners, have been critical to the national response during the Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, ensuring people have access to food and other essentials as well as supporting vulnerable groups in our society. Shoppers are recognising and appreciating these efforts, with trust in the food industry to support local communities up by 4 percent from February. As well as tackling the immediate challenges of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) impacts, retailers need to have an eye on the future. Our data shows a significant decline in shopper financial confidence, with 39% expecting to be worse off in the year ahead compared to 27% in February, indicating the rest of 2020 may be a bumpy ride for many.’

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