British retail sales plummeted by a record amount in April as many stores closed amid the coronavirus outbreak.

The latest Office for National Statistics (ONS) showed that the number of goods sold fell by 18.1% last month. Clothing sales also halved as many High Street shops were shut under the lockdown measures introduced by the government in March.

Online shopping as a proportion of all retail reached a record high of 30.7%,

Commenting on the figures, retail expert Dr Gordon Fletcher, of the University of Salford Business said “The last eight weeks have brought a series of high-profile collapses in the fashion sector. Oasis, Warehouse, Debenhams, Cath Kidston and Laura Ashley reveal how immediately vulnerable so many clothing and non-food retailers were to physical shutdown. These and other brands have shown how many retailers are not moving quickly enough to a full ecommerce experience. The inability to pivot can be seen with a 50% drop in April clothing sales in comparison to March. March too was itself a poor month with a drop of 30% against February sales. With high street clothing stores closed these percentages highlight a combination of decreased consumer interest and the lack of a full online offering. This is a real threat to the picture of the high street that will emerge from recovery but also does represent real opportunity for innovators who can reimagine the retail fashion experience online and offline.”

“The retail figures also contain some more positive messages. For the online retailers April saw them capture 30% of all sales – although admittedly against a reduced overall volume. Their goal in future months will now be to retain and even increase this proportion as the more reluctant consumers are becoming increasingly comfortable with an online offering.”

“As academics, local communities and regional authorities all argue for a sustainable and greener recovery the retail fuel sales figures are a pleasing indicator of what might be possible. April fuel sales saw a 62% reduction by volume against last year and a reduction of £43m worth of fuel sold in comparison to March. Even with current fuel prices that immediately translates into a significant reduction in emissions across the UK.”

“While local food retailers are small in comparison to the large supermarkets there are no real signs that during lockdown consumers have changed their buying patterns in terms of where they buy only in how much they are buying. Both large and small food stores increased sales by £5m over the same time last year. The increase in total sales for the smaller retailers does point to at least some short-term success of local retailers such as butchers to respond positively to the crisis by offering delivery services, phone orders and other practices that would have been quite familiar on the 1960s high street.”

“Positive innovations in retail are also emerging worldwide during the lockdown that may stay on the high street long after the recovery. Fashion stores are exploring VR technologies with renewed enthusiasm, supermarkets are letting customers reserve a slot to do their physical shopping and local outdoors markets are redesigning their layouts to maintain social distance. While some innovations have emerged out of necessity others are bringing an enhanced or even new angle to the retail experience that can contribute to the wider recovery that will – and must – come in the sector.”