Retail sales, Great Britain: February 2021

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

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Release date:
26 March 2021

Next release:
23 April 2021

1. Main points

  • Retail sales volumes only partly recovered in February 2021 with an increase of 2.1% when compared with the 8.2% fall seen in the previous month, and sales were still down by 3.7% on a year earlier before the impact of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

  • Non-food stores provided the largest positive contribution to the monthly growth in February 2021 sales volumes, aided by strong increases of 16.2% and 16.1% in department stores and household goods stores respectively.

  • Clothing retailers reported the largest fall, of 50.4%, in sales volumes when compared with February 2020 before the coronavirus pandemic; automotive fuel stores also reported a large annual decline of 26.5% as travel restrictions continued to hit sales in that sector.

  • In the three months to February 2021, retail sales volume fell by 6.3% when compared with the previous three months, with strong declines in both clothing stores and other non-food stores.

  • The proportion spent online increased to 36.1% in February 2021, the highest on record; this compares with 35.2% in January 2021 and 20.0% reported in February 2020.

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2. Retail sales in February

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

The value of sales was 2.2% higher, and the quantity bought was up 2.1% when compared with January 2021. This signalled only modest growth in the sector following the large fall in January (8.2%) reflecting the continuation of coronavirus (COVID-19) restrictions.

Estimates for both the amount spent and the quantity bought were lower in February 2021 than a year ago. The amount spent decreased by 4.4% and the quantity bought decreased by 3.7% compared with the same month a year earlier.

Total retail sales levels for both the amount spent and quantity bought had been higher than pre-pandemic levels between July and December 2020, however, February 2021 marked the second consecutive month where sales levels were lower than before the pandemic began (in March 2020) following increased restrictions to non-essential retail.  

The reporting period for the February publication covers 31 January 2021 to 27 February 2021; during this period there were widespread and extensive restrictions to non-essential retail in England, Scotland and Wales.

Sales volumes only increased in February 2021 by 2.1% following the large fall in growth in January of 8.2% reflecting the continued coronavirus restrictions. The strongest growth was in both department stores and household goods stores of 16.2% and 16.1% respectively.

The increase in department stores comes predominantly from budget department stores that were able to keep their physical stores open during the restrictions because of selling a mix of food and other essential items. A similar pattern was witnessed during the first lockdown in spring 2020 when volume sales for department stores fell by 24.1% in April 2020 but rebounded in May with growth of 13.2% as consumers took advantage of their continued store presence.

Anecdotal evidence from household goods stores suggested that the monthly growth of 16.1% in February 2021 could be attributed to the purchase of DIY products as consumers continue to improve their homes during lockdown. Retailers also noted that there was evidence of consumers buying outdoor products earlier in preparation for the easing of lockdown restrictions particularly the ability to meet friends and relatives in private gardens as the weather improves.

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3. Month-on-month contributions to growth by sector

Figure 2 shows the contribution to month-on-month growth in February 2021, with the amount spent 2.2% higher and the quantity bought up 2.1%.

Non-food stores were the largest positive contributor towards the monthly increase seen in both the amount spent and quantity bought, at 1.3 and 1.5 percentage points respectively. Department stores and household goods stores were the main drivers behind this contribution.

Food stores also provided positive contributions of 1.0 and 1.2 percentage points for the amount spent and quantity bought respectively; with feedback from retailers suggesting that the continued closure of the hospitality sector was boosting sales of food and alcohol.

Non-store retailing reported negative contributions of 0.2 percentage points for both the amount spent and quantity bought. Despite the monthly fall, the amount spent, and quantity bought in this sector remain significantly higher than before the pandemic, with growth of 47.8% and 49.4% respectively in February 2021 when compared with the same month a year earlier.

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4. A closer look at household goods stores

The quantity of sales increased by 16.1% in February 2021 when compared with January 2021 in this sector. Household goods stores also reported a 5.1% increase in the volume of sales in February 2021 when compared with February 2020 before the initial pandemic restrictions were implemented; they alongside food stores and non-store retailers are the only sectors to have seen their sales volumes higher than pre-pandemic levels in February 2021.

The household goods sector initially witnessed a severe fall in the volume of sales during the early coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic period. Sales declined rapidly in March and April 2020, with consecutive monthly falls of 9.1% and 45.9%.

There then followed seven consecutive months of growth taking the levels of sales above those observed before the pandemic. Anecdotal feedback from retailers in the sector suggested that the sale of DIY products was the driver for these sales as consumers undertook home improvements during national lockdowns.

Restrictions in several parts of the country were reintroduced in November 2020 leading to a slowdown in the sector, with a monthly increase of only 0.5% before monthly declines of 2.3% and 18.8% in December 2020 and January 2021 respectively.

A large monthly increase of 16.1% was seen in February 2021 as feedback from retailers suggested that the purchase of outdoor products has been brought forward by consumers in preparation for the easing of lockdown restrictions.

Looking at information gathered from retailers in both the Retail Sales Inquiry and the fortnightly Business Insights and Conditions Survey (BICS) asked retailers continuing to trade, in the last two weeks, how has the coronavirus pandemic affected your business's turnover, compared with what is normally expected for this time of year?

The information captured by BICS during the period covering 22 February to 7 March 2021, supports the growth gathered from retailers in the Retail Sales Inquiry in February, with 46.7% of household goods retailers reporting that their turnover had increased when compared with what is normally expected at this time of year. This was second only to non-store retailers who reported that 55.0% of businesses had witnessed an increase in turnover during the period.

Figure 5 looks at the sub-sectors within household goods and the different impact the pandemic has had on sales volumes.  

All sectors within household goods reported large falls in the early phase of the pandemic when national restrictions were first implemented. The furniture and lighting sector was the most severely affected, with monthly falls in the volume of sales of 22.3% and 70.5% in March and April 2020 respectively.

The furniture and lighting sector then saw a period of recovery from May until July 2020 when sales volumes exceeded the pre-pandemic levels witnessed in February 2020. Sales remained stable until January 2021 when further retail restrictions impacted the sector and resulted in a monthly fall of 23.9%. There was a small increase in sales of 1.3% in February 2021, however, sales volumes remain 13.9% lower than before the pandemic in February 2020.

Conversely although the sales volumes for hardware, paints and glass retailers initially declined by 35.4% in April 2020 when pandemic restrictions were first implemented, sales rebounded to levels witnessed before the pandemic in May 2020 and have remained above this level since.

The volume of sales for hardware, paints and glass retailers in February 2021 is now 20.3% higher than in the previous year. Feedback from retailers suggests that the sector has benefitted throughout the pandemic period form consumers investing in their own homes, with sales of DIY products increasing consistently. During the warmer months retailers also reported increased sales of outdoor furniture and goods as consumers were forced to stay at home because of travel restrictions.

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5. Online retail

Table 2 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.

The monthly picture in February 2021 was one of growth, with total online sales increasing by 4.6% when compared with January 2021.

Household goods stores was the sector to record the highest monthly growth in online sales in February 2021 of 35.9%, which combined with in-store sales, helped to boost total sales in this sector in February 2021.

Department stores also saw a significant monthly increase of 14.8%. Other non-food stores was the only sector to see a decline in online sales on the month; falling 1.5%.

The proportion of online retail increased to a record level in February 2021 reaching 36.1%, up from 35.2% in January 2021 and was far higher than the 20.0% in February 2020, reflecting the impact the pandemic has had on consumer behaviours for online retailing.

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6. Retail sales data

Retail Sales Index
Dataset | Released 26 March 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 26 March 2021
Total sales and average weekly spending estimates for each retail sector in Great Britain in £ thousands.

Retail Sales Index internet sales
Dataset | Released 26 March 2021
Internet sales in Great Britain by store type, month and year.

Retail Sales Index categories and their percentage weights
Dataset | Released 26 March 2021
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 (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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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 31 January 2021 to 27 February 2021. 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 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 February 2021 have been reviewed. Many series are impacted by coronavirus (COVID-19)-related actions in February 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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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 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 February 2021 was published by the United States Census Bureau on 16 March 2021. In its advanced monthly sales for retail and food services, February 2021 (PDF, 297KB) 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, 498KB) across the European Union on 4 March 2021 for January 2021. This shows the seasonally adjusted volume of retail trade in both the euro area (EA19) and EU27 when compared with December 2020.

End of EU exit transition period

As the UK enters into a new Trade and Co-operation Agreement with the EU, the UK statistical system will continue to produce and publish our wide range of economic and social statistics and analysis. We are committed to continued alignment with the highest international statistical standards, enabling comparability both over time and internationally, and ensuring the general public, statistical users and decision-makers have the data they need to be informed.

As the shape of the UK's future statistical relationship with the EU becomes clearer over the coming period, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) is making preparations to assume responsibilities that, as part of our membership of the EU and during the transition period, were delegated to the statistical office of the EU, Eurostat. This includes responsibilities relating to international comparability of economic statistics, deciding what international statistical guidance to apply in the UK context and to provide further scrutiny of our statistics and sector classification decisions.

In applying international statistical standards and best practice to UK economic statistics, we will draw on the technical advice of experts in the UK and internationally, and our work will be underpinned by the UK's well-established and robust framework for independent official statistics, set out in the Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007. Further information on our proposals will be made available later this year.

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Contact details for this Statistical bulletin

Rhys Dalgleish
Telephone: +44 (0)1633 455602