By Kristy Dorsey

The plunge in Scottish consumer spending accelerated dramatically in April as not even food retailing managed an uplift during the first full calendar month in lockdown.

With hundreds of thousands of shops closed for business to prevent the spread of Covid-19, total retail sales during the four weeks to May 2 dove by more than 40% compared to the same period a year earlier. Only a few select categories performed well – such as DIY, personal hygiene items and accessories for working from home – while the likes of clothing, beauty and furniture has a torrid time.

Figures from the closely-watched monthly sales monitor produced by the Scottish Retail Consortium and KPMG reveal the extent of the deterioration since March, when the onset of lockdown measures led to a short-lived record 13% decline in retail sales. April’s 40% decline is by far the largest since the sales monitor’s inception in 1999.

Total food sales in March rose by 12.1% as stockpiling resulted in unprecedented levels of grocery shopping, but that was reversed in April as households whittled down on hoarded goods. The usual Easter boom failed to materialise as contact restrictions prohibited family gatherings and other associated festivities.

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However, the decline in grocery spending was minute compared to the 71.4% fall in total non-food sales. Even after adjusting for the estimated effect of online shopping, non-food sales were down by more than 54% against April 2019.

David Lonsdale, director of the Scottish Retail Consortium, said the collapse underlined the extent of the economic chaos wrought by the pandemic.

“Unsurprisingly discretionary spending bore the brunt of it, recording its worst-ever performance as most shops were shuttered and shoppers switched their focus to essentials,” he said. “The spike in online purchases failed to staunch much of the sharp drop.”

Mr Lonsdale said the Scottish Government now needs to provide clarity on when and how “non-essential” retailers will begin to re-open. But regardless of that, the effects of the collapse in retailing will be felt “well beyond” any easing of restrictions.

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“Retailers are working hard to ready themselves to re-open safely, and to play their part in getting Scotland’s economy moving again, once they are permitted to do so by Government,” he said. “What is needed now is visibility on Scotland’s route out of lockdown and a sense of the likely sequencing and timeframes of any phased re-opening of shops.”

The Scottish Government is due to publish a “route map” on Thursday outlining how coronavirus restrictions could be lifted on a phased basis. The Prime Minister has said it is her “hope and intention” that the first concrete steps can begin on May 28.

Paul Martin, partner and head of retail at KPMG, said the record declines came as no surprise and reflected the magnitude of the difficulties still to be faced in the coming months.

“With total sales decreased by more than 40% compared with April last year, it’s impossible to downplay the scale of the impact the Covid-19 pandemic has had on one of the country’s most important sectors,” he said.

“With food sales also down slightly and online retail failing to make up the lost ground, it’s clear that the industry has a monumental challenge ahead.”