personal finance

UK retail sales flat in March as food and department stores struggle

The UK’s retail sector experienced no growth in March, despite a boost from petrol and diesel sales which offset declines in department stores and food shops, according to data released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS). The figures revealed that more motorists were visiting petrol pumps nationwide, pushing automotive fuel sales volumes up by 3.2 percent – their highest level since May 2022.

Despite observing no variation in overall retail sector trading, the ONS demonstrated slight negative monthly growth, with February’s 0.1 percent gain being downscaled to 0.0 percent. However, it was not all doom and gloom as the first quarter of 2024 saw an uptick in purchases, with an increase in the total volume of retail sales by 1.9 percent compared to Q4 of 2023.

Senior statistician at the ONS, Heather Bovill, stated “Retail sales registered no growth in March,” noting varied performance amongst different types of outlets: increased activity in hardware stores, furniture shops, petrol stations and clothing retailers was counterbalanced by falling trade in grocery and department stores due to high prices. Nevertheless, Bovill remains positive, stating, “Looking at the longer-term picture, across the latest three months retail sales increased after a poor Christmas.”

In addition to this, the statistics body observed increased turnovers in second-hand goods stores, hardware vendors as well as furniture and clothing outlets.

Food stores saw a fall of 0.7 percent while non-food store sales were up 0.5 percent. There was a 1.5 percent drop in sales for non-store retailers, which include online shops and market stalls among others.

Lisa Hooker, an expert at consultancy PwC, warned that the March figures should be “taken with a pinch of salt” because Easter fell earlier than normal this year. The ONS tries to adjust for that.

“While supermarkets benefitted from the earlier Easter, the slighter warmer weather and additional bank holidays encouraged more consumers back to hospitality with stronger restaurant and pub performance,” she said.

“Easter chocolate sales were subdued with the impact of chocolate price inflation and new health regulations meaning promotional displays had to be less prominent in stores.”

She added: “What is clear is that the first quarter of the year has been disappointing for many retailers.”

“Lower inflation and the first two percent cut to National Insurance which was felt in January’s pay packets has yet to translate into a sustained recovery in spending.”


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