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Retail sales in 2020 fall at fastest level in 23 years

Shoppers in Reading, Berkshire, during England's third national lockdown to curb the spread of coronavirus. Picture date: Monday January 18, 2021.

By Simon Neville

UK retail sales volumes increased in December as stores were allowed to reopen briefly, following the end of the second national lockdown in England, new figures show.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) said retail sales volumes rose 0.3% last month compared with November.

The year-on-year growth rate in the volume of retail sales increased by 2.9% when compared with December 2019.

However, the ONS said estimates of quantity bought in 2020 fell by 1.9% in the largest year-on-year fall since records began in 1997.

Food stores bucked the trend of 2020 with growth of 4.3%, as shoppers continued heading to supermarkets, which remained open as “essential” retailers throughout restrictions.

Many also benefitted from the closure of the hospitality sector, with upticks in alcohol sales.

December saw a major boost to clothing stores in particular, the agency said, with strong monthly growth of 21.5% – rebounding from a large fall in November of 19.6%.

High street clothes stores have been hit particularly hard during the pandemic due to enforced closures under Covid-19 restrictions and lockdowns.

Total online retailing values increased by 46.1% in 2020 when compared with 2019 – the highest annual growth reported since 2008, the ONS added.

Most benefitted from a boost in online sales, which helped soften the falls, but sales in the sector are still 14.2% lower than December 2019 and remain below pre-pandemic levels.

Ed Monk, associate director, personal investing at Fidelity international, said the strong rise in online sales showed “that 2020 was a watershed for how and where we spend our money”.

He added: “The festive period offered little respite for retailers with many still closed due to localised restrictions. It’s a disheartening, if unsurprising, indicator of the impact of Covid-19.”

Lisa Hooker, consumer markets leader at PwC, added: “In a month where non-essential shops and the high street hospitality industry experienced revolving doors of lockdown, changing tiers, Christmas and finally another lockdown, flat headline retail sales versus November seems almost a miracle.”

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