There was a big jump in clothing sales last month as shoppers returned to the High Street.
A surge in spending on clothes helped to boost retail sales last month, as lockdown measures eased and non-essential shops reopened.
Retail sales jumped 9.2% in April, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) said, with sales of clothing soaring by nearly 70% compared with March.
Sales overall were more than 10% higher than pre-pandemic levels, although online sales dipped.
Fuel sales increased, but remained below levels seen before coronavirus.
Retailers such as clothing and furniture stores, which the government classed as non-essential, reopened to shoppers in England on 12 April after shutting in early January.
The “astonishing” surge in clothing and footwear sales in April “showed that households were particularly keen to update their wardrobes”, said Paul Dales, chief UK economist at Capital Economics.
He said that there was less scope now for more big gains in retail sales, but added that recent data suggested that the economic recovery in May was “driven by people going back to the pubs, restaurants, cinemas and theatres”.
Silvia Rindone, EY UK & Ireland retail leader, said April had seen “significant pent-up consumer demand”.
“With consumers keen to return to the in-store shopping experience and indulge in retail therapy, we saw a sales boost across most categories.”
The reopening of non-essential shops led to a boost for many small businesses.
Delia Prudence, owner of The Art Room, an art supplies shop in Scarborough, said: “We were expecting to be busy in April but not that busy.
“The tills were ringing non-stop. One customer even came in with a bottle of Prosecco to celebrate us reopening.”
Industry body the British Retail Consortium (BRC) said that April had given “a welcome boost for thousands of retailers in England and Wales” due to pent up demand.
“Improved weather during April meant greater sales of fashion, particularly in outerwear and knitwear, as the public renewed their wardrobe and made plans to meet friends and family outdoors,” said BRC chief executive Helen Dickinson.
However, she said that while the figures were “a step in the right direction”, demand “remains fragile”.
“Footfall is still down by 40% on the pre-pandemic period, and there are still 530,000 people who work in retail still on furlough,” she said, adding that the end of the full business rates relief in England “poses a significant threat to retailers”.
Samuel Tombs, chief UK economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics, said that there were signs that sales might rise further in May.
However, he predicted that the recovery in household spending “will stall as it approaches its pre-Covid level later this year”.
The winding-up of the furlough scheme at the end of September is likely to trigger a renewed fall in employment, while rising inflation will push down real wages, he said.
In addition, the end of the stamp-duty holiday on 30 September will probably lead to a “sharp decline” in housing market activity, leading to less demand for “big-ticket” household goods.