By Kristy Dorsey

The pressure on Scotland’s largely abandoned high streets intensified in May as retail sales plummeted by more than a quarter amid lockdown restrictions.

The 27.6% decline against the same period a year earlier was an improvement on April’s record crash of 40.3%, but sales of non-food items remained extremely weak. This has led to warnings of a “vicious cycle” that will further fuel unemployment levels that are already surging.

The closely-watched monthly monitor produced by the Scottish Retail Consortium (SRC) and accountancy firm KPMG recorded a 53.2% decline in non-food sales. Adjusting for the estimated effect of online purchases, total non-food sales were 33% lower than in May 2019.

READ MORE: Retailers’ plans to cut store numbers and proportion weighing redundancies revealed

Food sales during the four weeks to May 30 returned to modest growth of 3.6%, having slipped back in April as households worked their way through hoarded goods.

Ewan MacDonald Russell, head of policy at the Scottish Retail Consortium, said the rise in food sales was “unimpressive” given the continued closure of restaurants, pubs, catering and most food-to-go outlets. Across the sector as a whole, restrictions on trading are “bringing many retailers to the brink”.

“When combined with weak consumer demand and confidence there is a real risk of entering a vicious economic cycle where reduced retail, hospitality, leisure and other sales leads to more pressure on businesses through the supply chain which leads to fewer workers,” he said.

READ MORE: Our shopping habits will change forever, it won’t be as fun

“Increased unemployment will exacerbate this further. It’s therefore essential we have a clear and unambiguous indicative timetable for high streets re-opening, a clear plan so shoppers can travel to and shop safely in town and city centres, and a short-term economic stimulus package to encourage consumers to start shopping again.”

These latest figures come as shop owners in Scotland eagerly await news about the extent to which they might resume trading as the country prepares to enter “Phase 2” of the roadmap out of lockdown. All shops in England were allowed to re-open this past Monday following a three-month hiatus, leading to long queues from the release of pent-up demand.

With socialising restricted to a minimum, Scottish consumers remained reluctant to buy new clothing or footwear, two of the worst-hit categories in May. Sportswear and loungewear were the most popular segments, while formal wear struggled as most white-collar workers remained at home.

READ MORE: Shops call for re-opening date to be announced

Driven by upsizing, children’s wear remained the best performer, but the lack of school meant that new uniforms were not required. Sales of indoor and outdoor toys remained strong, while May’s dry, warm weather helped outdoor categories like garden furniture and sports equipment.

Small home accessories such as frames and cushions were in demand, but large-ticket items suffered as consumers were reluctant to make significant outlays amid job uncertainty.

Electronics topped the charts, driven by the continuing shift towards home as the place for work and schooling. Office furniture was also popular.

In health and beauty, there was a shift from pure immediate necessities like soap and shampoo to more cyclical purchases such as lipstick and fragrances. Segments such as baby food and feminine hygiene suffered as consumers worked through stockpiles.

READ MORE: How retailers are preparing the fightback in preparation for reopening

After two months of disruption caused by stockpiling in March and a lack of Easter spending in April, food sales returned to something closer to normal. Convenience stores continued to benefit from larger basket sizes despite lower footfall as they remained destination shops for regular top-ups away from the crowds.

“The food sector is understandably holding its own, but the focus now shifts to the hundreds of independent and chain non-food retailers preparing to open their doors as restrictions ease,” said Paul Martin, UK head of retail at KPMG.

“June could become a crucial month as the sector, and consumers, come to terms with a very different looking high street.”