Retail sales, Great Britain: April 2021

A first estimate of retail sales in volume and value terms, seasonally and non-seasonally adjusted.

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Email Rhys Dalgleish

Release date:
21 May 2021

Next release:
18 June 2021

1. Main points

  • Retail sales volumes grew sharply in April 2021 with a monthly increase of 9.2%, reflecting the effect of the easing of coronavirus (COVID-19) restrictions including the re-opening of all non-essential retail from 12 April in England and Wales and from 26 April in Scotland.

  • Non-food stores provided the largest contribution to the monthly growth in April 2021 sales volumes, aided by strong increases of 69.4% and 25.3% in clothing stores and other non-food stores respectively.

  • Retail sales volumes were 42.4% higher than in April 2020, which was affected by the first national lockdown when the tightest restrictions were in place; however, these growth rates are distorted by base effects and are not a reliable guide; sales volumes were 10.6% higher than February 2020, before the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

  • All retail sectors reported a fall in their proportions of online sales as physical stores re-opened during the month; as a consequence, the total proportion of sales online decreased to 30.0% in April 2021, down from 34.7% in March 2021.

  • In the three months to April 2021, the volume of sales increased by 2.6% when compared with the previous three months, with strong growth in department stores and automotive fuel retailers of 9.9% and 8.9% respectively.

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2. Retail sales in April

Table 1 provides a snapshot of what happened in the retail sales industry in April 2021 with both value and volume growth rates.

The value and volume of sales were both up 9.2% when compared with March 2021 reflecting the impact of the re-opening of all non-essential retail stores in April. This signalled continued recovery in the retail sector following the growth in March (5.1%) and February (1.8%). The strongest monthly growth in April 2021 came from clothing stores, other non-food stores and automotive fuel retailers of 69.4%, 25.3% and 10.6% respectively.

Estimates for both the amount spent and the quantity bought were higher in April 2021 than a year ago, when severe lockdown restrictions were implemented.

The amount spent increased by 43.4% and the quantity bought increased by 42.4% when compared with April 2020. However, percentage change over the past year should be interpreted with caution because of base effects; the base month was affected by large falls in retail sales during the first national lockdown, when the tightest restrictions were in place.

A more useful comparison is with February 2020, before the first lockdown. Total retail sales levels for both the amount spent and quantity bought were up 9.9% and 10.6% respectively compared with their pre-coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic February 2020 levels.

Longer-term comparisons show the continuing impact of the pandemic. Non-store retailing (retailers with no physical store presence) was the sector to report the largest growth of 56.0% when compared with April 2019, highlighting a change in consumer behaviour caused by retail restrictions during the pandemic. Automotive fuel retailers continue to record sales lower than pre-pandemic levels, down 13.3% when compared with two years previously, as homeworking and reduced travel continues to impact the sector.

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3. Retail sales by sector

The reporting period for the April publication covers 4 April 2021 to 1 May 2021; during this period restrictions on non-essential retail in England, Scotland and Wales were relaxed allowing physical stores to re-open (from 12 April in England and Wales and 26 April in Scotland). This re-opening of physical stores had a profound effect on the retail sector.

Non-food stores reported the largest monthly growth in April 2021 of 25.4%, with clothing stores in particular reporting strong growth of 69.4% as the sector benefitted from the re-opening of physical stores. Automotive fuel retailers also reported strong growth of 10.6% as further relaxation of restrictions saw an increase in travel. Food stores were the only sector to report a monthly decline of 0.9%.

The following sections will look at each sector in more detail.

Food stores

Food store sales volumes declined by 0.9% in April 2021 following three consecutive months of growth since December 2020. Despite the fall in April, food store sales remain considerably higher than their pre-pandemic level, with sales in April 2021 8.6% higher than in February 2020.

Feedback from retailers suggested that sales were negatively affected in April by both the re-opening of all retail sectors and the relaxation of hospitality restrictions. For a better understanding of what people are buying in large supermarket stores, we ask them for a breakdown of the main commodities sold in-store (Figure 4). This shows that all commodity types saw a fall in their monthly sales when compared with the previous month.

Non-food stores

Non-food stores reported the largest monthly growth of all retail sectors in April 2021 of 25.4%, as many retailers in the sector were able to re-open their physical stores.

All sectors of non-food retail reported monthly growth in April 2021, with the clothing sector reporting the largest growth of 69.4%, "other" non-food stores also reported large monthly growth of 25.3%, while department stores and household goods stores also reported continued growth in April leading to sales volumes above levels witnessed before the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic began (7.6% and 19.7% respectively above February 2020 levels).

Non-store retailing

While non-store retailers reported modest monthly growth of 1.0%, sales volumes remain much higher than their pre-pandemic level, with volumes in April 2021 53.1% higher than in February 2020.

Automotive fuel

Automotive fuel sales grew by 10.6% when compared with the previous month, continuing the recovery witnessed in March (growth of 10.9%) as the relaxation of lockdown measures increased travel by consumers. Sales, however, continue to remain 9.9% lower than February 2020 before the pandemic began.

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4. Online retail

Table 3 shows the month-on-month and year-on-year growth rates for the amount spent online by value, in addition to the proportion of online sales. The percentage weights indicate where money is spent online (for example, 48 pence in every pound spent online was spent through non-store retailers in 2020).

Online spending decreased in April 2021 by 5.6% when compared with March 2021, with a large decline in food stores of 11.4%. Feedback from retailers suggested that the easing of hospitality restrictions had affected sales in the sector. All other sectors except non-store retailers reported declines in monthly sales, while the opening of physical stores saw the proportion of retail spending online decline to 30.0% from 34.7% in March 2021.

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5. Retail sales data

Retail Sales Index
Dataset | Released 21 May 2021
A series of retail sales data for Great Britain in value and volume terms, seasonally and non-seasonally adjusted.

Retail Sales pounds data
Dataset | Released 21 May 2021
Total sales and average weekly spending estimates for each retail sector in Great Britain in £ thousands.

Retail Sales Index internet sales
Dataset | Released 21 May 2021
Internet sales in Great Britain by store type, month and year.

Retail Sales Index categories and their percentage weights
Dataset | Released 21 May 2021
Retail sales categories and descriptions and their percentage of all retailing in Great Britain.

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6. Glossary

Value (amount spent)

The value estimates reflect the total turnover that businesses have collected over a standard period.

Volume (quantity bought)

The volume estimates are calculated by taking the value estimates and adjusting to remove the impact of price changes.

Seasonally adjusted

Seasonally adjusted estimates are derived by estimating and removing calendar effects (for example, Easter moving between March and April) and seasonal effects (for example, increased spending in December as a result of Christmas) from the non-seasonally adjusted (NSA) estimates.

Non-seasonally adjusted

Non-seasonally adjusted estimates refer to raw data where the effects of regular or seasonal patterns have not been removed.

Non-store retailing

Non-store retailing refers to retailers that do not have a store presence. While the majority is made up of online retailers, it also includes other retailers such as stalls and markets.

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7. Measuring the data


More quality and methodology information on strengths, limitations, appropriate uses, and how the data were created is available in the Retail Sales QMI.

Seasonal adjustment

All seasonal adjustment parameters for our volume and value data, for all businesses and internet data time series, up to April 2021 have been reviewed. Many series are impacted by coronavirus (COVID-19)-related actions in April 2021 and previous months. Each series has been reviewed and the best adjustment for coronavirus-related effects applied. These may need to be revised further as additional data become available.

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8. Strengths and limitations

Uses and users

The Retail Sales Index (RSI) is an important economic indicator and one of the earliest short-term measures of economic activity. It is used in the compilation of the national accounts and widely used by private and public sector institutions, particularly by the Bank of England and HM Treasury to assist in informed decision- and policy-making.

Comparability with international data

The most recent international estimate of retail sales available for April 2021 was published by the United States Census Bureau on 14 May 2021. In its advanced monthly sales for retail and food services, April 2021 (PDF, 319KB) they include the amount spent in the United States retail industry, including motor vehicles and parts, and food services.

Data for Northern Ireland are published by the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA).

It should be noted that accurate comparisons cannot be made against these or other international statistics for a variety of reasons, including differences in methodology.

Eurostat also published their latest estimates of the Volume of retail trade (PDF, 518KB) across the European Union on 6 May 2021 for March 2021. This shows the seasonally adjusted volume of retail trade in both the euro area (EA19) and EU27 when compared with February 2021.

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Contact details for this Statistical bulletin

Rhys Dalgleish
Telephone: +44 (0)1633 455602