UK retail sales surged in May by the most since the Covid-19 pandemic began as shoppers returned to high streets across the country after lockdown measures were relaxed, according to industry figures.
The British Retail Consortium said total sales increased by 10% in May compared with the same month in 2019, before Covid-19 hit consumer spending and tipped the UK into recession.
After the reopening of non-essential retail and hospitality venues across all four nations of the UK, pent-up demand among lockdown consumers fuelled a sharp rise in spending, with strong growth in furniture sales and homewares, as well as a recovery in clothing and footwear shops.
Clothes shops reported sales growth of more than 100% as going out returned with the opening of indoor hospitality in May. Following the reopening of physical shops, online sales growth fell back to 39% in May compared with a three-month average of 64%. However, it remains significantly higher than pre-pandemic growth of 1.5% in May 2019.
Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the BRC, said: “Retail sales were buoyant in May thanks to the reopening of hospitality, coupled with the afterglow of non-essential retail’s own return. Pent-up demand for the in-store shopping experience, as well as the first signs of summer weather, helped retail to the strongest sales growth of the pandemic.”
Separate figures from Barclaycard showed that spending was up by 7.6% on May 2019’s figure – the highest increase recorded since the first coronavirus restrictions were put in place last spring.
Spending on essential items was bolstered by face-to-face purchases at food and drink specialists, where cardholders paid out 69% more than in May 2019. Barclaycard, which accounts for nearly half of the country’s debit and credit card transactions, said this spending may have been buoyed up by people preparing to host friends and family after the lockdown ends.
Since 17 May, people in England, Wales and most of Scotland have been allowed to host another household indoors, or meet in a group of up to 30 outside, and pubs and restaurants have been able to cater for customers inside. Non-essential retail reopened across the UK in April.
The Barclaycard data included signs of recovery at hospitality venues, although spending remained well below that recorded two years ago. The value of transactions in restaurants was 53% lower than in May 2019, up from a 74% decline in April, and in pubs and bars spending was down by 19%, up from a 67% dip the previous month.
Raheel Ahmed, head of consumer products at Barclaycard, said: “May was a positive month for a range of categories, with the nation clearly determined to show support for retailers and local businesses. As friends and families reunited after months apart, it is reassuring to see signs of recovery for the entertainment and hospitality industries, both of which have faced significant challenges over the past year.”
The figures are part of a growing picture of an economy bouncing back as lockdown restrictions are eased. In early May, the Bank of England increased its estimate for UK GDP growth in 2021 from 5% to 7.25%, which would be the strongest growth since the second world war.
Last week, UK factories reported surging orders, and on Monday the latest figures from the housing market showed almost double-digit growth in the year to May.
Separate figures from the retail data firm Springboard showed a near-12% rise in high street visits last week, as the half-term break and good weather encouraged people to hit high streets and shopping centres.
The company said footfall on UK high streets was up by 17% on the previous week, while shopping centres recorded a 9% uplift. Retail parks saw lower growth, with footfall up by 2%.
Activity leapt by 37% in coastal towns as the holiday season got into swing, while in historic towns, footfall was up by a quarter week on week.
Springboard’s data showed that across most parts of the country footfall was still down on the same period of 2019, but the gap narrowed to its lowest level since the pandemic hit. In central London, it was down by nearly 40%, while in coastal towns it was up by 10%, as a result of the bank holiday falling in a different week.
Diane Wehrle, insights director at Springboard, said a combination of the bank holiday, good weather and the school break had “a hugely beneficial effect on customer activity”.
She said: “Inevitably, visitors wanted to be outside to enjoy the weather, so by far the greatest benefit was seen by high streets, where the rise in footfall from the week before was double that in shopping centres, and eight times that in retail parks.”