British retail sales rose faster than expected last month, helped by Black Friday discounts, early Christmas shopping and no lockdown restrictions that closed many shops last year, official figures have showed.
Retail sales volumes rose by 1.4% in November on a seasonally-adjusted basis and were 4.7% higher than a year earlier, when non-essential stores were closed to the public, the Office for National Statistics said.
Economists polled by Reuters had on average forecast that sales volumes would rise by 0.8% on the month and be 4.2% higher than in November 2020. October sales were revised higher too.
"Retail sales picked up in November, boosted by strong Black Friday and pre-Christmas trading. Clothing stores fared particularly well and have exceeded their pre-pandemic level for the first time," ONS statistician Heather Bovill said.
Clothing and footwear sales were hard hit by the pandemic, as people went out less and shops were shut, but have now risen 51% from a year ago.
British retail sales rebounded rapidly after a slump at the start of the pandemic in 2020, but had drifted lower since a peak in April as easing COVID-19 restrictions gave consumers a wider range of spending options.
Friday's figures pre-date the spread of the Omicron variant in Britain, which are a concern for many stores, and prompted the Bank of England to downgrade its short-term growth forecasts on Thursday.
"Rising cases will likely cool off the high street and put pressure on last minute online orders, and we should expect to see heavy discounting over Boxing Day and the New Year as retailers look to shift excess stock," said Erin Brookes, head of European retail at consultants Alvarez & Marsal.
Consumer electricals retailer Currys said its market had softened in recent weeks, online fashion retailer Boohoo warned on annual profit, and data has indicated fewer shoppers on Britain's high streets.
Previous data from the British Retail Consortium showed a 5% rise in retail spending last month as shoppers snapped up Black Friday discounts - many of which were offered earlier in the month than in previous years.
Trade bodies also had reports of people shopping earlier than usual for Christmas due to COVID concerns.
Shift Towards Online Shopping
The pandemic led to a big shift towards online shopping, which has only partly reversed and accounted for 26% of spending last month compared with 20% before the pandemic.
Friday's data also highlight the inflation pressures which prompted the BoE to raise interest rates on Thursday for the first time since the start of the pandemic, and which are likely to squeeze consumers' disposable income further in 2022.
The retail sales deflator, an inflation measure used in the retail sales data, rose to 6.0% in November, its highest since August 2008.
The broader consumer price inflation measures targeted by the BoE hit a 10-year high of 5.1% in November.