Retail sales, Great Britain: March 2020

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

This is not the latest release. View latest release

This is an accredited National Statistic. Click for information about types of official statistics.

Email Rhian Murphy

Release date:
24 April 2020

Next release:
22 May 2020

1. Main points

  • In March 2020, the monthly retail sales volume fell sharply by 5.1%; the largest fall since the series began as many stores ceased trading from 23 March following official government guidance during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

  • In March 2020, clothing store sales saw a sharp fall when compared with the previous month, at negative 34.8%.

  • Food stores and non-store retailing were the only sectors to show growth in the monthly volume series in March 2020, with food stores seeing the strongest growth on record, at 10.4%.

  • In the three months to March 2020, retail sales volume fell by 1.6% when compared with the previous three months, with strong declines in non-food stores and fuel.

  • Online sales as a proportion of all retailing reached a record high of 22.3% in March 2020 as consumers switched to online purchasing following the pandemic.

  • The Office for National Statistics (ONS) has released a public statement on the coronavirus (COVID-19) and the production of statistics.

Back to table of contents

2. Retail sales in March

In March 2020, all measures showed a decline for both value and volume retail sales (Table 1).

In the three months to March 2020, value sales fell by 1.4% and volume sales by 1.6% when compared with the previous three months.

Showing a stronger rate of decline, the monthly growth rate fell sharply at 5.7% for value and 5.1% for volume as many stores ceased trading from 23 March following official government guidance during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

Figure 1 shows the volume of retail sales for the month-on-month and three-month on three-month movement.

The three-month on three-month growth rate for volume sales begins to slow down from June 2019 and decline from November 2019 with five consecutive falls up to March 2020. The monthly growth rate fell sharply in March 2020 at negative 5.1% as many stores ceased trading during the coronavirus pandemic.

Back to table of contents

3. Retail sales by sector

On 23 March 2020, the UK government announced official quarantine rules and guidance for Great Britain as a result of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. This meant that many non-essential store types temporarily stopped trading to minimise gatherings and spread of the virus.

The reporting period for March 2020 was from 1 March to 4 April 2020 meaning that two weeks of the five-week trading period was under social distancing measures introduced as the government moved into the "delay" phase of the coronavirus response. This affected main store types in various ways.

Figure 2 shows how each main sector contributed to the overall monthly growth rate in the value and volume of sales in March 2020.

As trading continued for essential store types, including food stores, consumers increased purchasing in these stores, with a month-on-month contribution of 3.9 and 4.0 percentage points for value and volume sales respectively. In contrast, non-food stores saw a sharp decline of negative 7.8 (value) and negative 8.0 (volume) percentage points.

In addition, the travel restrictions resulted in a decline for fuel sales at negative 2.3 (value) and negative 2.0 (volume) percentage points in March.

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

Food stores

Figure 3 shows that the average food store price remains stable with a slight and gradual increase from March 2017. The value and volume of food sales show a similar pattern of slow growth until March 2020 when a sharp rate of growth is seen for both measures. Increases are seen across all food store types (Table 2).

As seen in Table 2, all food store types increased in both the value and volume of sales in March 2020. The weight to retail sales inquiry (RSI) shows the amount of money typically spent in food stores for every pound. For example, more money is spent in supermarkets as consumers spend around 35.3 pence in every pound within these stores.

For alcohol stores, only 0.7 pence in every pound is typically spent in these stores, with many consumers opting to purchase their alcohol in supermarket stores.

Supermarket stores saw a strong increase in volume sales at 10.3%, while alcohol store sales soared at 31.4% in volume terms. However, alcohol sales can be more volatile for month-on-month growth rates.

For a better understanding of what people are buying in large supermarket stores, we asked them for a breakdown of the main commodities sold in-store (Figure 4). Commodity information is non-seasonally adjusted, therefore it is useful to see monthly growth rates into March 2019 for comparison.

Figure 4 shows month-on-month growth rates for non-seasonally adjusted commodity value data for March 2020 and March 2019.

In March 2020, the value for food, household goods and other non-food items all increased sales on the month by 15.3%, 18.0% and 16.4% respectively, showing strong growths when compared with the previous year (at 3.3%, 1.0% and 4.2% respectively).

In contrast, clothing items declined dramatically in March 2020 at negative 28.4% in comparison with a moderate increase of 3.3% in March 2019. Consumers appeared to be focusing on essential purchases to stockpile (Table 3), with clothing suffering as a result.

Comments from food store retailers suggested that panic buying, or stockpiling during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, was a big factor in the increased sales, particularly for supermarkets (Table 3). Store closures were a reason provided by smaller food stores for reduced sales, although a small number did diversify with delivery-only orders.

Non-food stores

Many non-essential stores ceased trading from 23 March 2020 as a direct impact from the coronavirus pandemic (approximately 25% of the retailers sampled and returned in our Business Impact of Coronavirus (COVID-19) Survey (BICS) reported that they had temporarily ceased trading).

We also received comments from retailers to inform us of their store closures, which was typical for many non-food store types (Table 4).

Most non-food stores saw a decline in both the value and volume of sales, with clothing stores taking a big hit in sales (Table 5).

The strong declines of negative 20.0% in the value of sales and negative 19.4% in the volume of sales in non-food stores were caused by strong declines in all stores except department stores. Textiles, clothing and footwear was the largest decline at negative 35.5% and negative 34.8% for value and volume sales respectively.

Department stores were the only stores to see an increase in sales following a general downward trend in recent times. Some stores continued to trade online and provided delivery options. We also asked department stores what commodities were bought in March (Figure 5).

Commodity information is non-seasonally adjusted, therefore it is useful to see monthly growth rates into March 2019 for comparison.

Figure 5 shows that the type of commodities sold in department stores follows a similar pattern to supermarket stores, with increased sales in food, household goods and other non-food. Clothing items show a sharp decline of negative 34.3% on the month.

Non-store retailing

Non-store retailing includes online only retailers and other non-store trading such as stalls and markets, and pop-up stores (Table 6).

Online retailers dominate this sector with 10.8 pence in every pound spent in online only retailing.

In March 2020, non-store retailing increased by 5.1% in value terms when compared to the previous month, while the volume of goods increased by 5.9%. The main online retailers were able to continue trading during the coronavirus pandemic, which helped to boost sales.

Our commodity questionnaire shows that all commodities except for clothing saw an increase in March (Figure 6).

Commodity information is non-seasonally adjusted, therefore it is useful to see monthly growth rates into March 2019 for comparison.

The value of food sales saw the strongest increase in March 2020, with a monthly growth rate of 101% when compared with the monthly growth rate of 2.6% in March 2019. Strong growth in value sales were also seen in household goods and other non-food items in March 2020, while clothing items saw a small decline of negative 0.8%.


The fuel series shown in Figure 7 shows that the value and volume of fuel sales can be volatile, with changes to fuel prices shown with the average store price (implied deflator). Fuel prices started to reduce from January 2020 after an increase in prices from December 2019.

In March 2020, with imposed travel restrictions during the coronavirus pandemic and an average of 48% of the workforce across all industries survey in Business Impact of Coronavirus (COVID-19) Survey (BICS), the value and volume of fuel sales fell sharply with a monthly decreases of 22.1% and 18.9% respectively.

Back to table of contents

4. Online sales

We have seen steady growth in the value of online retail sales as can be seen in Figure 8. There is a sharper rate of increase to March 2020 caused by strong increases in online sales for most store types (Table 7).

Table 7 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.

As many stores ceased trading from 23 March 2020, there was a larger uptake in online trading and some stores offered delivery-only options. The uptake of online sales can be seen in Figure 9, when we compare with monthly sales for the same month a year earlier.

Department stores saw a strong monthly increase of 47.4% in March 2020, compared with a slight increase of 0.1% in March 2019. Household goods stores also saw a strong increase, at 36.9% in March 2020 compared with the monthly decline of negative 4.1% in March 2019. These stores commented on the increased sales of fridge-freezers purchased online in March. This was also commented in the BBC online article .

Clothing stores were the only stores to show a decrease in the value of sales for the monthly growth rate, at negative 16.1% when compared with a growth of 1.7% in March 2019.

Supermarkets did well with an increase of 17.9% in March for online food orders. Many retailers suggested that consumers were panic buying during the pandemic and taking up all available delivery slots. Some retailers reduced the number of items to manage this for consumers.

Online sales as a proportion of all retailing reached a record high of 22.3% in March 2020. All sectors reached highest-recorded proportions except non-store retailing, while food reached a proportion of 5.7%.

Back to table of contents

5. Retail sales data

Retail Sales Index
Dataset | Released 24 April 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 24 April 2020
Total sales and average weekly spending estimates for each retail sector in Great Britain in £ thousands.

Retail Sales Index internet sales
Dataset | Released 24 April 2020
Internet sales in Great Britain by store type, month and year.

Retail Sales Index categories and their percentage weights
Dataset | Released 24 April 2020
Retail sales categories and descriptions and their percentage of all retailing in Great Britain.

Back to table of contents

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.

This month ONS has conducted a full seasonal adjustment review using the latest data for March 2020 and have followed international guidance in reviewing and applying the seasonal adjustment parameters. See Eurostat guidance on seasonal adjustment for more details.

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.

Back to table of contents

7. Measuring the data

This bulletin presents estimates of the quantity bought (volume) and amount spent (value) in the retail industry for the five-week period 1 March 2020 to 4 April 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 Retail Sales QMI.

This year, with another full year’s data, we will be undertaking our annual update of our commodity deflators to improve our estimates of volumes sold.

Back to table of contents

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 March 2020 was published by the US Census Bureau on 15 April 2020. In its advanced monthly sales for retail and food services, March 2020 (PDF, 1.52MB) 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, 517KB) across the European Union on 3 April 2020 for February 2020. This shows the seasonally adjusted volume of retail trade in both the euro area (EA19) and EU28 when compared with January 2020.

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.

Back to table of contents

Contact details for this Statistical bulletin

Rhian Murphy
Telephone: +44 (0)1633 456495