Britain’s consumers started to spend more freely even before lockdown restrictions were eased, according to official figures pointing to a spring bounceback in the economy.
The Office for National Statistics said that in March – a month in which there was only a modest relaxation of the curbs imposed across the UK to stop the spread of Covid-19 – retail sales rose by 5.4%.
The increase was well above the 1.5% predicted by City economists, with sales in March 1.6% higher than they were before the pandemic began to have an impact on the economy in February 2020.
Darren Morgan, the director of economic statistics development at the ONS, said retail sales had continued their recovery after a subdued start to the year. In the first quarter of 2021, with all but essential stores closed, sales were almost 6% lower than in the final three months of 2020
“Specialist food stores, such as bakers and butchers, saw increased sales as the continued closure of hospitality saw customers buying produce for Easter festivities at home,” Morgan said.
“The approaching spring enticed people into garden centres, which had a good month, while clothing sales sprung back to life as people looked to update their wardrobe in anticipation of lockdown easing.
“Fuel sales also recorded a strong month as the easing of movement restrictions meant people could again travel further afield.”
Paul Dales, the chief UK economist at Capital Economics, said: “March’s strong rise in retail sales showed that the economy made a fair bit of progress even before non-essential retailers reopened in April.”
The ONS said the proportion spent online decreased to 34.7% in March 2021, down from 36.2% in February 2021, but was still above the 23.1% reported in March 2020, the month when lockdown restrictions were imposed for the first time.
Kallum Pickering, an economist at Berenberg, said: “Spring has sprung for the UK economy. Led by a rapid recovery in domestic demand, the UK is building serious recovery momentum heading into the summer. Household confidence continued to rise in April, underpinned by rapid vaccine progress and easing virus restrictions, while monthly retail sales surged above their pre-pandemic level in March.”