Shoppers clearly took the opportunity to stock-up on festive goodies in October, while they could, according to retail sales data released last week.

Last month retail sales rose for the sixth month in a row. Sales increased by 1.2% when compared with September, data from the Office for National Statistics shows, in what is undoubtedly good news for the beleaguered retail sector.

It suggests that shoppers - rightly fearing further lockdowns - took every opportunity to shop while they could. Most store types saw sales increase in October, including household goods shops with a strong 3.2% monthly rise. Only the fashion sector got left out of the festive spending, with sales coming in a worrying 14% below February’s pre-pandemic level and 1.2% lower than in September.

The big winners, of course, were those retailers who cashed-in on the ongoing surge in online sales. Overall, 28% of spending was done online, up from 19% in October last year.

No retailer could have anticipated that the trend to shop online that was already gathering pace, could accelerate at such a speed. But the October figures show that sales in stores with no physical presence at all are now 45% higher than they were in February, before the pandemic took hold. They are 6.4% higher in October than even the month before.

Even department stores, which had been struggling to maintain footfall on the high street at the start of 2020 and did not have a thriving online presence to speak of, saw online sales grow at an above average month-on-month rate of 3.1% in October. 

While the festive party season is off the cards this year, which means those clothing sales are unlikely to be helped much, online retailers look set to pick up even more trade as the long winter evenings and a dearth of anything much else to do, will likely lead to would-be revellers, high street shoppers and party-goers having to appease themselves with online shopping instead.

With England three weeks into its second nationwide lockdown, more than two million Scots about to enter into the country’s toughest level of coronavirus restrictions, Northern Ireland on the brink of a new two-week “circuit-break” lockdown and people living in Wales being warned they could follow suit, many retailers will be pinning their hopes that Christmas and the increasingly Black Friday sales, entice shoppers to spend online.  Data from the first two weeks in November has already hinted that this is already happening, with online sales up 60%. 

Meanwhile, we have to wait and see whether high street retailers, many of whom will be relying on pre-Christmas sales to see them through, will get a much-needed relaxation of the rules in enough time for a significant return to in-store shopping. And get at least a fighting chance to save this Christmas from the Covid Grinch.

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