British retail spending slumped by more than a quarter during the first two weeks of lockdown measures to slow the spread of the coronavirus, the British Retail Consortium said on Thursday, in the clearest sign so far of COVID-19’s economic hit.
The BRC said its members reported a 27% drop in sales in the two weeks to April 4, which largely overlapped with the start of a lockdown Britain’s government announced on March 23 that has barred the public from most stores other than supermarkets.
“The closure of non-essential shops led to deserted high streets and high double-digit declines in sales which even a rise in online shopping could not compensate for,” BRC chief executive Helen Dickinson said.
Britain’s Office for Budget Responsibility said on Tuesday the economy could be on track for an unprecedented 35% decline in the April-June period due to the lockdown. Even if the lockdown eased and growth rebounded, annual output could still fall 13% in 2020, the biggest annual decline in over 300 years.
The BRC said total retail spending in the five weeks to April 4 – this year’s March period for British retail sales – was down by 4.3% compared with the previous year.
This fall came despite a surge in supermarket spending in the early part of the month, when British shoppers stocked up – and in some cases engaged in panic-buying – ahead of the expected lockdown and quarantine concerns.
This was the biggest monthly fall since the series began in 1995, once distortions linked to the timing of Easter and Black Friday sales promotions are stripped out, the BRC said.
Like-for-like sales, which take account of changes in floor space, dropped by 3.5%.
Department store chain Debenhams and fashion brands Oasis and Warehouse are among the well-known British high street businesses to have fallen into financial difficulties in the past couple of weeks.
Credit and debit card company Barclaycard reported a similar picture in its monthly spending data for March, which showed a 6.0% decline, the biggest since the survey began in 2015.
While supermarket spending was up 21% on the month, travel spending, including public transport, sank by 40% and consumer confidence fell to a survey low. Just 25% of people surveyed felt confident about the economy, down from 42% in February.
“Tighter movement restrictions have meant consumers are largely staying indoors, and therefore unable to visit the high-street, socialise in person, or travel,” Barclaycard director Esme Harwood said.