Clothing sales rebounded in December but were still down in 2020 overall, ONS figures reveal

Clothing sales rebounded in December last year, rising by 21.5 per cent from a large fall in November 2020, reveal the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics. However, the rise did little to balance out the overall decline in clothing sales during 2020, which fell by a sharp -25 per cent when compared to 2019. Meanwhile, department store sales volumes shrunk by 5.2 per cent.

The retail sector overall saw sales volumes increase by 0.3 per cent when compared to November, resulting in an increase of 2.7 per cent when compared to February’s pre-pandemic level. The year-on-year growth rate in volume of retail sales increased by 2.9 per cent when compared with December 2019, with non-store retailers reporting the biggest growth of 43.5 per cent.

However, people bought much less in 2020 overall, with a decline in sales quantity of 1.9 per cent – the sharpest year-on-year fall since records began in 1997.

Unsurprising, e-commerce was the biggest winner last year. Online sales grew by 46.1 per cent when compared to 2019 – the strongest increase since 2008. 

“December was not without its challenges, with many shops forced to close abruptly when tier four measures were introduced in some parts of the country, but sales still increased thanks to a Christmas surge,” comments Lee Lucas, principal and CEO at the Fashion Retail Academy. “Clothing stores had a particularly strong month, marking the largest growth across all retail sectors.” 

He adds: “Covid disruption pushed more shoppers to go online throughout the year, and although fewer consumers shopped online in December compared to the previous month as the festive season enticed shoppers to the high street, overall online sales increased by a staggering 61.4 per cent compared to December 2019.

“The immediate future remains tough for non-essential retailers, however the roll-out of the vaccine will boost confidence that this could be the last time stores are forced to close their doors.”    

Meanwhile, Ulas Akincilar, head of trading at the online trading platform, INFINOX, comments: “A last-minute Christmas boost helped Britain’s retailers end 2020 down but not out. A brief easing of November’s widespread lockdown restrictions allowed some life to return to the high street. Most encouraging of all for physical retailers was that December’s uptick in sales was driven largely by bricks and mortar stores. Online sales even fell by 6.2 per cent compared to their bumper, Black Friday-fuelled November.”

He concludes: “With the UK facing weeks more of national lockdown and an increasingly scarred economy, the overall prospects for 2021 are finely balanced.

“The experience of last year suggests a relief rally will come when lockdown restrictions are rolled back, but as millions of Britons’ finances continue to deteriorate, the improvement will be fragile and partial.”