Retail sales fall to lowest ever annual level

Clothing stores were the worst hit last year, reporting the largest annual fall at -25.1%, which was also the largest year-on-year fall on record for the sector

The retail sector has suffered its largest annual fall since records began, with total sales down 1.9% against the year prior, as restrictions on non-essential retail continued to impact the sector as a whole. 

This was the biggest decline since records began in 1997, according to the ONS. After declines of 1.0% and 0.3% in 2010 and 2011 respectively, total retail sales had since been in consistent growth, with a peak at 4.7% year-on-year growth in 2016 and continued growth up to 2019, which was up 3.3% on the previous year.

Clothing stores were the worst hit last year, however, reporting the largest annual fall at -25.1%, which was also the largest year-on-year fall on record for the sector. 

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Department stores and “other” stores, which includes jewellers, cosmetics and toys amongst other sectors, also reported record year-on-year falls in the quantity sold in 2020, down 5.2% and 11.6% respectively.

Food stores, however, were able to buck the trend and reported annual growth of 4.3%, the highest yearly growth since 2001.

Despite the record decline in total sales, December sales saw a slight improvement in overall retail, as retail volumes rose by 0.3% against the prior month, with value sales rising by 0.4%. 

In addition, clothing retailers saw the largest monthly growth in December of 21.5%, rebounding from a monthly fall of 19.6% reported in November amid the second national lockdown. 

The ONS suggests that Christmas purchases through click and collect and online sales helped to lessen the overall impact on retail during the month, particularly in the clothing sector.

Overall, the amount spent in online retail sales increased by 46.1% in 2020 when compared with 2019, marking the largest annual increase since 2008.

All sectors of retail welcomed large increases in total online sales last year, with food stores reporting the largest increase in online sales of 79.3%, a record annual increase for the sector.

Department stores, household goods stores and “other” stores also recorded record annual increases in sales for 2020 as a whole, at 65.9%, 73.9% and 73.4% respectively when compared with 2019. This is attributed to the widespread closure of bricks-and-mortar retail throughout the year. 

Looking back at December’s figures, however, online sales slipped by 6.2% when compared with November 2020. In addition, despite the overall monthly recovery, total sales in the sector were still 14.2% lower than December 2019 and continue to remain at a lower level than before the pandemic struck.

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