Britain’s biggest retailers recorded the sharpest growth in sales since 2018 as consumer confidence was boosted by the easing of lockdown in England and Wales, and progress with the Covid-19 vaccination programme.
For the first time in 2021, sales volumes were viewed as good for the time of year, according to the latest monthly snapshot from the CBI lobby group, and sales were expected to remain above normal levels in May after the reopening of non-essential shops in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
The survey of 124 retail businesses and wholesale distributors showed that hardware, DIY shops, and furniture and carpet retailers enjoyed particularly strong sales as consumers continued to focus on home improvements. The results, compiled between 26 March and 15 April, covering some of the period after the easing of restrictions on 12 April, showed overall retail sales increased at the fastest pace since September 2018.
Ben Jones, principal economist at the CBI, said the improvement was fuelled by sectors that had performed relatively well during the pandemic. However, there was little immediate rebound for retailers in the hardest-hit sectors, such as clothing, footwear and department stores.
“Retailers are still facing challenges around inventory management and their supply chains, amid trade disruption, big shifts in consumer behaviour and uncertainty over how long some degree of social distancing could remain in place,” he added.
Separate figures showed sparkling wine sales soared 48% in the past four weeks as English and Welsh shoppers celebrated the easing of lockdown. The bubbly boom came despite an overall 1% decline in alcohol sales in the four weeks to 18 April as pubs and restaurants were able to trade outdoors, according to Kantar, a research provider.
Trips to supermarkets rose by 4% in the three months to 18 April, giving a further indication of new confidence in going out and about, as the vaccine began to be administered to under-50s. Older shoppers accounted for nearly half the extra visits.
The discount supermarket Aldi increased its share of the market for the first time in a year and Asda became the fastest growing of the four major grocers for the first time in more than two years as both benefited from the shift back to shopping in stores.
Fraser McKevitt, head of retail at Kantar, said: “There is a growing sense that the worst of the pandemic is behind us, and people are becoming more comfortable with venturing out to the supermarket. The past four weeks have been the busiest in store for the grocers in more than a year.” He said that the data showed shoppers were visiting stores more often and buying slightly less on each visit, which suggested that “habits are slowly returning to normal”.
In contrast, the number of people buying their groceries online slipped back, with digital orders falling to 13.9% of sales in the four weeks to 18 April compared with 15.4% in February. Growth at the online specialist Ocado slowed to 27.5% in the 12 weeks to 18 April from just over 50% reported a month before.
Sales also declined at independents and the locally based Co-op chain compared with last year as shoppers returned to big supermarkets. However, Kantar said these businesses were still up strongly on two years ago, before the pandemic.