The Office for National Statistics (ONS) said sales volumes fell 1.4 per cent in March – faster than the 0.5 per cent drop in February – although they remain 2.2 per cent above pre-Covid levels of February 2020.
Online sales bore the brunt, dropping 7.9 per cent in the month – following on from a 6.9 per cent fall in February.
There was also a decrease in fuel sales volumes of 3.8 per cent as soaring petrol and diesel costs put motorists off making unnecessary journeys, the ONS added.
The only part of the retail landscape to see an increase in sales was in non-food stores, which were up 1.3 per cent, driven by a 2.6 per cent rise at household goods retailers including garden centers and DIY stores.
ONS director of economic statistics Darren Morgan said: “Retail sales fell back notably in March, with rises in the cost of living hitting consumers’ spending. Online sales were hit particularly hard due to lower levels of discretionary spending.
“Fuel sales also fell substantially, with evidence suggesting some people reduced non-essential journeys, following record high petrol prices, while food sales continued to fall, dropping for the fifth consecutive month.”
The ONS suggested that the fall in online sales could be due to the end of lockdown restrictions and shoppers feeling confident returning to stores, when compared with December and January as the Omicron variant of coronavirus ran rampant.
It also warned that “some of the fall in February and March 2022 may also be linked to affordability concerns” and pointed out that recent surveys found 54 per cent of adults reported spending less on non-essentials due to an increase in the cost of living .
Earlier this week, figures from the Scottish Retail Consortium indicated that retail sales north of the Border had recovered close to pre-pandemic levels last month, though “economic storm clouds” continue to threaten the sector.
Jacqui Baker, partner and head of retail at business services group RSM UK, said: “Fear around the cost of living crisis has seen consumer confidence plummet to peak pandemic levels as uncertainty grips consumers spend, so it’s no surprise to see retail sales fall by 1.4 per cent in March.
“The cost of living crisis and rebalancing of consumer spending habits is now starting to bite for online sales.”
Myron Jobson, senior personal finance analyst at investment platform Interactive Investor, said: “Keeping a lid on spending is now a daily battle for many amid runaway inflation.
“Higher energy bills, coupled with increases in the cost of groceries and other essential services such as broadband and mobile phone tariffs, also leave less to spend on other items – reflected by a fall in non-store retailing which was the largest contribution to the fall in retail sales in March.
“It is important now more than ever to pay extra attention to your financial wellbeing.”
High street snapshot: Scottish sales values hit pre-pandemic levels but recovery…