The latest figures reflect the effect of the easing of coronavirus restrictions on consumer spending, with sales 1.6% higher than February 2020, the month before the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
The value of sales was also 5.5% higher, and the quantity bought was up 5.4% when compared with February 2021. This signalled a continued recovery in the sector following the 2.2% growth in February.
In addition, estimates for both the amount spent and the quantity bought were higher in March 2021 than a year ago, when lockdown restrictions were first implemented. The amount spent increased by 7.3% and the quantity bought increased by 7.2% compared with the same month a year earlier.
Non-food stores provided the largest positive contribution to the monthly growth in sales volumes, aided by strong increases of 17.5% and 13.4% in clothing stores and other non-food stores, respectively.
A 17.5% monthly growth in the clothing sector marked a “significant” increase in sales volumes, though sales in this sector still remained 41.5% below the level in February 2020 before the pandemic began. According to the ONS, feedback from retailers suggested that the impending relaxation of lockdown restrictions had prompted the increase this month.
Meanwhile, food stores reported a monthly growth of 2.5%, with strong growth in specialist food stores, such as butchers and bakers. According to the ONS, this likely reflected the continued closure of the hospitality sector over the Easter period.
The proportion spent online fell to 34.7% in the month, down from 36.2% in February 2021 but still above the 23.1% reported in March 2020. While the value of online spending did increase in March, spending in-store increased at a faster rate.
Despite strong March figures, retail sales for the quarter were “subdued” overall, however. In the three months to March 2021, retail sales volume fell by 5.8% when compared with the previous three months, with strong declines in both clothing stores and other non-food stores as a result of the tighter lockdown restrictions in place.