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    Retail sales suffer record slide; Food sales jump

    People wait outside an Iceland store in the Kennedy Centre opening one hour early to allow elderly shoppers to buy food as the number of coronavirus cases grow around the world, in Belfast, Northern Ireland, Britain, March 17, 2020. REUTERS/Jason Cairnduff

    Retail sales slumped a record 5.1 percent in Britain last month as a coronavirus lockdown shut clothes and other stores, offsetting surges in food and alcohol purchases and online buying, official data showed Friday.

    The decline represents the sharpest drop since the Office for National Statistics (ONS) records began in 1996.

    Food stores, among the few allowed to remain open during the government’s lockdown introduced on March 23, saw record sales growth of 10.4 percent in March from February, with alcohol purchases by volume soaring 31.4 percent, the ONS said.

    However clothes store sales slumped almost 35 percent, the ONS added. With tens of millions of Britons in lockdown, online sales reached a record 22.3 percent month-on-month gain.

    Analysts warned that much worse was to follow.

    “With widespread lockdowns only beginning around the middle of the March, retail spending looks like it will fall by much more in April, perhaps around 20-30 percent month-on-month,” said Thomas Pugh, economist at Capital Economics research group.

    The data covered the period from March 1 to April 4 including two weeks of the government’s shutdown of much of the economy.

    Britain’s economy could he heading into its deepest recession in more than 300 years, according to the country’s budget forecasters, even after the finance ministry and the Bank of England rushed out a string of emergency stimulus measures.

    “Clearly there is huge uncertainty as to how deep the downturn proves and how long restrictions remain in place, a fall in the region of 25% in GDP over the next few months seems likely,” Pugh said.

    Britain’s store-based retailers, outside of food, have been severely hit by the lockdown to counter the pandemic, with already-weak firms such as Laura Ashley, Debenhams and Oasis Warehouse falling into administration over the past month.

    The ONS said a longer-running series that excludes fuel sales dropped by the most since it began in 1988, down by 3.7 percent on the month.

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