Coronavirus: Record food sales growth fails to prevent worst March for retail

Official figures have charted a record surge in food sales growth though the wider retail sector endured its worst March on record as the coronavirus crisis shuttered stores.

The data, produced by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), showed supermarkets were clear winners during the month as shoppers dashed to stock cupboards with everyday items in the run-up to the COVID-19 social distancing restrictions from 23 March.

Sales volumes were 10.4% up on February – a record spurt of growth for grocers – while alcohol-focused stores enjoyed a jump of 31.4%.

Overall online sales reached a record share of all retail spending at 22.3% during the month as stores closed and consumers ventured outside less.

While the high demand for groceries, in particular, helped prop up the wider retail sales figures, widespread shop closures across the economy meant volumes were 5.1% down as a whole.

Clothing store sales endured a staggering 34% slump, the figures showed.

Fuel sales were 2% lower on a monthly basis.

ONS head of retail sales, Rhian Murphy, said: “Retail sales saw their biggest monthly fall since records began over 30 years ago with large declines in clothing and fuel, only partially offset by strong food sales.

“Online-only retailers saw strong growth though, with many high street stores also unsurprisingly seeing a boost to web sales.”

In value terms, the retail sector lost 5.7%.

The figures pile agony on an industry that was already reeling from a collapse in consumer spending before the coronavirus crisis took hold.

The lockdown has forced a string of chains, including Laura Ashley, BrightHouse and Debenhams, into administration while hundreds of thousands of store staff nationwide are furloughed from their jobs pending the lifting of restrictions.

The sales data was revealed hours after the CBI business lobby group issued an appeal for ministers to beef up help for UK firms.

It issued the plea amid concerns financial support schemes are not reaching companies and workers at a pace that will protect the millions of jobs at risk from the outbreak.

The Financial Times reported on Friday that the government was now considering guaranteeing 100% for bank loans under the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme (CBILS).

Figures on Thursday showed that more than 16,600 small and medium-sized businesses had been given aid worth £2.8bn by banks though an estimated 300,000 firms had expressed interest in securing help.

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