The Office for National Statistics (ONS) has recorded the steepest decline in retail sales in March since the tracker was launched in 1996.

Despite a surge in grocery sales, overall retail sales plunged 5.1% month on month in March, exacerbated by a 34.8% plummet in clothing sales.

The ONS attributed the sharp decline to the government ordering non-essential store closures on March 23.

Food and online sales were the category to register growth during the period, with grocery sales registering the strongest growth of 10.4%. Online sales accounted for a record 22.3% of overall retail sales in the month as shoppers flocked online amid store closures.

In the three months to March, retail sales volumes declined 1.6% driven by sharp falls in non-food stores and fuel.

Retail Economics chief executive Richard Lim warned that the pandemic had not only halted store visits, but had also triggered shoppers to cut back on non-essential spend due to economic uncertainty and reduced wages.

“Retailers are in crisis mode as the impact of Covid-19 has obliterated sales to new record-lows,” he said.

“The immediate shock to our lives has forced new shopping behaviours and a focus on essentials. But worries about health, job security and prospects for the economy are causing some consumers to cut all non-essential spending and hibernate.”