Retail sales, Great Britain: August 2020

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

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Release date:
18 September 2020

Next release:
23 October 2020

1. Main points

  • In August 2020, retail sales volumes increased by 0.8% when compared with July; this is the fourth consecutive month of growth, resulting in an increase of 4.0% when compared with February’s pre-pandemic level.

  • In August, retail sales values increased by 0.7% when compared with July and 2.5% when compared with February.

  • In August, there was a mixed picture within the different store types as non-store retailing volumes were 38.9% above February, while clothing stores were still 15.9% below February’s pre-pandemic levels.

  • Spending for home improvements continued to rise in August as sales volumes within household goods stores increased by 9.9% when compared with February.

  • Online retail sales fell by 2.5% in August when compared with July, but the strong growth experienced over the pandemic has meant that sales were still 46.8% higher than February’s pre-pandemic levels.

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2. Retail sales in August

Table 1 provides a snapshot of what was happening in the retail sales industry in August 2020 with both value and volume growth rates.

In August, the value of retail sales increased by 0.7% and volume sales by 0.8% when compared with the previous month. When compared with February 2020’s pre-pandemic level, total retail sales were 2.5% and 4.0% higher in value and volume terms respectively.

When compared with the previous three months, a stronger rate of growth was seen in the three months to August, at 16.4% and 16.7% for value and volume sales respectively. Strong growth was seen here because of large monthly increases in June and July when compared with the sharp falls experienced over lockdown in March and April.

The only measure to show a decline was value sales in the three months to August when compared with the same three months a year ago, at negative 0.6%.

In August 2020, retail sales volumes increased by 0.8% from July and were 4.0% higher in August when compared with February 2020.

Despite total levels of sales increasing to above pre-pandemic levels, the pandemic has changed the shape of the retail industry (Figure 2).

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3. Retail sectors during the coronavirus pandemic

Despite total levels of retail sales increasing to above pre-pandemic levels, there was a mixed picture within each sector as not all stores experienced this bounce back (Figure 2).

Figure 2 shows the change in year to date sales volumes in 2020 (January to August) when compared with the same period a year earlier, for each main retail sector.

Total retail sales volumes decreased by 4.8% up to August 2020 as all sectors except for food and non-store retailing saw a fall in sales. Food stores increased by 4.4% and non-store retailing showed strong growth at 28.6% when compared with January to August 2019. From March 2020, consumers shifted to spending in essential food stores and online retailers as many stores within non-food retailing faced temporary closures. Total non-food stores fell by 18.2%, with a strong decline of 30.1% for clothing stores.

While many fuel stations remained open during lockdown, movement restrictions, including homeworking, had reduced travel and volume sales fell by 24.3% in 2020 as a result.

Figure 3 shows growth in the volume of retail sales for each store type from March to August when compared with February’s pre-pandemic levels.

Figure 3: Non-store retailing saw strong increases in volume sales during lockdown and remained at high levels in August 2020, while clothing stores continued to recover from the sharp falls experienced during the pandemic

Volume sales, seasonally adjusted, Great Britain, February to August 2020

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Source: Office for National Statistics – Monthly Business Survey and Retail Sales Inquiry

Office for National Statistics – Monthly Business Survey and Retail Sales Inquiry

  1. Chart shows the March, April, May, June, July and August sales as a proportion of February 2020 where February sales equals 100%.

In August, total retail sales volumes were 4.0% higher than February. Sectors above February’s pre-pandemic level were food stores, other non-food retailing, household goods and non-store retailing. All other sectors have shown a slower rate of growth since lockdown and continued to recover.

Volume sales within non-store retailing increased sharply in April and May, and sales in August were 38.9% higher than February 2020. This was driven by a shift to online orders during lockdown because of temporary store closures for non-essential stores. As a result, all non-food stores experienced a sharp decline in April, with signs of recovery from May to August 2020. Clothing stores were the worst hit during this time as sales in August were 15.9% lower than February 2020.

Looking at information gathered from retailers in both the Retail Sales Inquiry and Wave 12 of the Business Impact of Coronavirus (COVID19) Survey (BICS), which covered 10 to 23 August, 85.7% of clothing stores reported a decrease in footfall (Figure 4).

The highest percentage of businesses reporting decreased footfall were textile, clothing and footwear stores at 85.7%. As expected, the lowest percentage of businesses affected by decreased footfall were non-store retailing at 9.1%. Since online-only retailers make up most of the non-store sector, footfall was not relevant to 63.6% of businesses that responded to this question.

Further, 51.5% of food stores reported a decrease in footfall from 10 to 23 August, which may have been down to other parts of the economy reopening, such as restaurants and bars. A recent news article reported that the Eat Out to Help Out scheme encouraged many consumers to spend more money in food outlets, which may have reduced spending in supermarkets. Similarly, the commodity sales data, taken from 54 large retailers in the retail sales index questionnaire, also show a fall in food and drink items in July and August (Figure 5).

Figure 5 looks at the food and drink commodities sold in 54 large retailers, including supermarkets. There was a spike in spending for food and drink items in March as sales were 12.1% higher than February; this is likely because of panic buying at the start of lockdown. After some contraction in April, May and June remained at high levels and sales in July and August began to fall. This may be because other food and drink outlets, such as bars and restaurants, reopened in July. The latest monthly gross domestic product (GDP) release commented on a growth of 140% in July for accommodation and food services (including restaurants) as lockdown measures eased.  

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4. Stores that were not negatively affected by the coronavirus pandemic

In August 2020, volume sales within household goods stores were 9.9% higher than February 2020, mainly because of increased sales for home improvement items (Figure 6).

Figure 6: Household goods stores selling home improvement items recovered to above pre-pandemic levels, while music and video stores remained at lower levels in August

Volume sales, seasonally adjusted, Great Britain, February to August 2020

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Source: Office for National Statistics – Monthly Business Survey and Retail Sales Inquiry


  1. Chart shows the March, April, May, June, July and August sales as a proportion of February 2020 where February sales equals 100%.

Figure 6 shows that all stores except music and video fully recovered from the falls experienced over lockdown.

Hardware, paints and glass stores showed a sharp rate of recovery in May with a growth rate of 58.6% when compared with April 2020; this resulted in August’s sales being 12.9% higher than February. This may have been because of the exemption of these stores to the lockdown rules imposed on other non-essential store types. Feedback from retailers added that many consumers were carrying out home improvements over this period, which helped boost sales to 12.9% above February’s sales.

Home improvements may also be the reason for a faster rate of recovery for furniture stores and electrical household appliances. Music stores, on the other hand, continued to recover and in August were still 14.3% below volume sales in February 2020.

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5. Online sales

Table 2 shows the month-on-month and year-on-year growth rates for the amount spent online, in addition to the proportion of online sales. The percentage weights indicate where money is spent online.

In August, the proportion of online spending was at 28.1%; this is a slight fall from the 28.9% reported in July. We also see falls in the value of online retail sales when compared with July, at negative 2.5%. Declines seen across all sectors except clothing and household goods.

These declines in value sales may be because of many businesses reopening from July, resulting in less online spending in August. Other parts of the economy reopened, such as restaurants and bars, which may have impacted sales within food stores as online sales fell by 4.6% in August.

While restaurants and other services are not included in the Retail Sales Inquiry , spending in these sectors could impact spending elsewhere. Figure 2 in our June release on the impact of the coronavirus on the economy shows the range of sectors that began to trade over the months from May 2020.

Looking at the year-on-year growth in Table 2, total retail sales increased by 51.6%, with strong increases across all sectors. This shows that while we see declines on the month, online sales were at significantly higher levels than the previous year. The longer-term trend is shown in Figure 7.

While we saw a monthly decline in online retail sales in August 2020, sales were still 46.8% higher than February’s pre-pandemic levels. As total retail sales recovered in August, a higher proportion of online spending continued when compared with pre-pandemic spending. 

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6. Retail Sales data

Retail Sales Index
Dataset | Released 18 September 2020
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 18 September 2020
Total sales and average weekly spending estimates for each retail sector in Great Britain in British pounds thousands.

Retail Sales Index internet sales
Dataset | Released 18 September 2020
Internet sales in Great Britain by store type, month and year.

Retail Sales Index categories and their percentage weights
Dataset | Released 18 September 2020
Retail sales categories and descriptions and their percentage of all retailing in Great Britain.

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7. 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 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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8. Measuring the data

This bulletin presents estimates of the quantity bought (volume) and amount spent (value) in the retail industry for the four-week period from 2 to 29 August 2020.

Unless otherwise stated, the estimates in this release are seasonally adjusted.

Retail sales collects turnover data from retailers, which is money through the till before any deductions, including refunded items. This provides us with the best indicator for consumer spending during the reference period.

The Retail Sales Index (RSI) measures the value and volume of retail sales in Great Britain on a monthly basis. Data are collected from 5,000 businesses in the retail industry, with all businesses employing over 100 people or with an annual turnover of more than £60 million receiving an online questionnaire every month. The survey’s results are used to produce seasonally adjusted monthly, quarterly and annual estimates of output in the retail industry at current price and at chained volume measures (removing the effect of price changes).


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

Seasonal adjustment

All seasonal adjustment parameters for our volume and value data, for all businesses and internet time series, up to July 2020 have been reviewed. Many series are impacted by coronavirus (COVID-19) related actions in July 2020 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.

After EU withdrawal

As the UK leaves the EU, it is important that our statistics continue to be of high quality and are internationally comparable. During the transition period, those UK statistics that align with EU practice and rules will continue to do so in the same way as before 31 January 2020.

After the transition period, we will continue to produce our national accounts statistics in line with the UK Statistics Authority’s Code of Practice for Statistics and in accordance with internationally agreed statistical guidance and standards.

The Withdrawal Agreement outlines a need for UK Gross National Income (a fundamental component of the national accounts, which includes gross domestic product (GDP)) statistics to remain in line with those of other EU countries until the EU budgets are finalised for the years in which we were a member. To ensure comparability during this cycle, the national accounts will continue to be produced according to European System of Accounts (ESA) 2010 definitions and standards.

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9. 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 is widely used by private and public sector institutions, particularly by the Bank of England and HM Treasury to assist in informed decision-making and policymaking.

To align with Blue Book national accounts, the RSI will re-reference to the year 2018. This will provide a more recent index reference year for analysis but will not impact growth rates or general movements in the data.

Comparability to international data

The most recent international estimate of retail sales available for August 2020 was published by the US Census Bureau on 16 September 2020. In its advanced monthly sales for retail and food services, August 2020 (PDF, 1.46MB), they include the amount spent in the US 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, 509KB) across the EU on 3 September 2020 for July 2020. This shows the seasonally adjusted volume of retail trade in both the euro area (EA19) and EU28 when compared with June 2020.

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Contact details for this Statistical bulletin

Rhian Murphy
Telephone: +44 (0)1633 456495