Online sales bore the brunt as shoppers in the UK reined in unnecessary purchases during March, as the cost-of-living crisis started to bite, according to official figures.
The Office for National Statistics (ONS) said online sales volumes dropped 7.9 per cent in the month – following a 6.9 per cent fall in February.
Overall, sales fell 1.4 per cent in March – faster than the 0.5 per cent drop in February – although they remain 2.2 per cent above pre-Covid levels of February 2020.
There was also a decrease in fuel sales volumes of 3.8 per cent as soaring petrol and diesel costs put motorists off making unnecessary journeys, the ONS said.
The only part of the retail landscape to record an increase in sales was in non-food stores, which were up 1.3 per cent, driven by a 2.6 per cent increase at household goods retailers including garden centres and DIY stores.
ONS director of economic statistics Darren Morgan said: “Retail sales fell back notably in March, with rises in the cost of living hitting consumers’ spending.
“Online sales were hit particularly hard due to lower levels of discretionary spending.
“Fuel sales also fell substantially, with evidence suggesting some people reduced non-essential journeys, following record high petrol prices, while food sales continued to fall, dropping for the fifth consecutive month.”
The ONS suggested that the fall in online sales could be a result of the end of lockdown restrictions and shoppers feeling confident returning to stores, compared with December and January when the Omicron variant of coronavirus ran rampant.
It said that “some of the fall in February and March 2022 may also be linked to affordability concerns” and pointed out that recent surveys found 54 per cent of adults reported spending less on non-essentials owing to the increase in the cost of living.
Food shop sales volumes fell 1.1 per cent over the month, with households cutting back on excessive food purchases because of cost-of-living concerns.
The ONS said that the decrease was also the result of more shoppers preferring to spend their cash on eating out and socialising now that Covid-19 restrictions had come to an end.
The ONS said affordability may also explain some of the fall in recent months. Results from its Opinions and Lifestyle Survey, covering the period March 16-27, found that 87 per cent of adults reported that their cost of living had increased over the past month. This was up from 83 per cent in the previous period (March 3-13, 2022) and up from 62 per cent when this question was first asked (November 3-14, 2021). The most common reason reported by adults who said their cost of living had increased was an increase in the price of food (88 per cent).