UK retail sales dip in November as lockdown batters high street

Retail sales fell by 3.8% in November on the previous month as the coronavirus lockdown in England and restrictions elsewhere in the UK shut much of the high street.

Ending a six-month run of rising sales, the figures revealed the impact of the pandemic on the sector as the infection rate increased across the country.

A 19% fall in clothing sales followed the closure of most department stores and non-essential shops.

A government message that workers should stay at home if they could caused car journeys to slump and petrol sales to follow suit with a 16.6% decline.

The only bright spot for retailers was an increase in the sale of household goods of 1.6% as shoppers went online to stock up for Christmas. Supermarkets and food stores increased sales by 3.1%.

Analysts said it was no surprise the lockdown bolstered online shopping to a record total of 31.4% of all spending, after an increase of almost 75% since November 2019.

The Office for National Statistics said 90% of businesses continued to trade in some form through the month, mostly via a click-and-collect service. But only 68.8% of department stores continued trading.

Meanwhile, many online retailers reported a boom in sales, as they did during the UK-wide lockdown in spring, though heavy discounting helped to keep the tills ringing.

The ONS said this week that price cutting by clothing retailers last month pushed UK inflation down to 0.3%, from 0.7% a month earlier. The Bank of England’s inflation target is 2%.

Aled Patchett, the head of retail at Lloyds Bank, said: “November’s sales highlight once again the polarising effect of Covid-19 on retail. Sectors like grocery and homeware perform well – and should be expected to have a strong finish to the year – while others including big-name high street brands fall foul of significantly reduced footfall.

“Despite most shoppers having wrapped up their Covid Christmas shopping online this year, shops – particularly in smaller towns – will be hoping that the vaccine rollout inspires greater consumer confidence in the new year as people return to city centres for both work and play.”

In October, a 6.4% increase in online sales spurred a 1.2% rise in the total volume of retail spending, mainly driven by shoppers rushing to buy early Christmas presents before the second lockdown in England.

Lee Lucas, the chief executive of the Fashion Retail Academy, which has partnerships with some of Britain’s biggest retailers including Marks & Spencer and Next, said he was not surprised the November lockdown triggered a fall in clothing sales.

“November is one the busiest months of the year for retailers, so this emergency measure by the government will have been directly responsible for the unusually high level of discounting currently in stores, with shops fighting for every consumer in the briefest of run-ups to Christmas.”

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