By William Schomberg and David Milliken
LONDON (Reuters) - British retail sales fell by the most on record in March as a surge in food buying for the coronavirus lockdown was dwarfed by a plunge in sales of clothing and most other goods, and the slump is likely to be even worse in April.
Official figures showed sales volumes plunged by 5.1% in March from February, the sharpest drop since the Office for National Statistics' records began in 1996.
It was also a bigger fall than the median forecast for a drop of 4.0% in a Reuters poll of economists.
The March 1-April 4 data covered only two weeks of the government's shutdown of much of the economy.
"With widespread lockdowns only beginning around the middle of March, retail spending looks like it will fall by much more in April," said Thomas Pugh, an economist with Capital Economics, adding a monthly fall of 20%-30% was possible.
"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," he said.
Britain's economy could he heading into its deepest recession in more than 300 years, according to budget forecasters, even after the finance ministry and the Bank of England rushed out a string of emergency stimulus measures.
The retail and distribution sector employs about 10% of the country's workers, many of whom face being put on leave due to store closures.
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% on the month. Sales of fuel were down about 20% on the month.
Food sales volumes were up by a record 10.4% in March from February as people stocked up for the government's stay-at-home order. Sales of alcohol at specialist stores rose by a record 31.4%. But clothing sales tumbled by 34.8%, the ONS said.
Compared with March last year, total sales were down 5.8%, also a bigger fall than expected by economists in the poll and the largest on record.
Department stores saw monthly sales growth in March - up 2.8% - helped by their online sales capability. Non-store retailing, covering online, rose 5.9%.
Online purchases as a share of total sales jumped by the most on record from one month to the next, accounting for 22.3% of all shopping, up from 19.9% in February.
Separately, a survey showed British consumer confidence held at its lowest since 2009 this month after tumbling in late March.
(Editing by Larry King and Angus MacSwan)