Online sales, April 2021 - Supplementary COVID-19 analysis

To enhance the understanding of the economic impacts of COVID-19, additional analysis of online sales in the retail series was undertaken.


The Retail Trade survey has been collecting online sales since the March quarter 2013. The Online series is published as grouped industry split; a Food group (including the Food retailing, and Cafes, restaurants and takeaway food services), and a Non-food group (all other industries). Due to the limitations of online data collection, a finer split by industry is not possible at this stage. 

Online sales have become increasingly popular during the COVID-19 pandemic. Restrictions placed on the operation of physical retail stores saw both businesses and consumers turn to online retailing. 

It is worth noting that retailers have had to adapt sales channels very quickly during the pandemic, and it is possible that the value of online purchases has been under-reported since April 2020. Importantly, total retail sales will not be under-reported.

The Online series remains experimental, and caution should be used in interpreting the results, especially during this volatile period. 

Total online retail

Total online sales fell 3.2% in April 2021, in seasonally adjusted terms, following a rise of 1.7% in March 2021, and a fall of 2.1% in February 2021.

In through-the-year terms, the seasonally adjusted series is up 4.0% compared to April 2020, down from a through-the-year rise of 37.0% last month. The change in through-the-year growth is due to the sharp rise in online sales in April 2020, when nationwide regulations saw restrictions on physical store trade across a range of retail industries. Total online sales have averaged an annual rise of 59.4% between the 12 months of May 2020 to April 2021.

Food and Non-food

Online sales fell for both the Food group (-2.3%), and the Non-food group (-3.6%) in April 2021, in seasonally adjusted terms.

Non-food online sales fell 3.6%, in seasonally adjusted terms, following a 0.6% rise last month. Through-the-year growth has fallen 8.3% this month when compared to April 2020, in seasonally adjusted terms, down considerably on the 24.4% rise from last month. This fall in annual growth comes as a result of larger than average movements in the series during 2020, with the closure of non-essential businesses shifting consumer activity to online channels. Food online sales remain elevated in through-the-year terms, up 48.1% compared to April 2020.

As a proportion of total group industry turnover, Non-food online sales were 14.0% of total Non-food sales in April 2021, in original terms. The proportion of total Food sales made online was 5.1% in April 2021, in original terms.

Total online sales were 9.2% of total sales in April, which is a slight fall from March 2021 (9.4%). The portion of sales made online has declined when compared to April 2020 (11.1%).

Changes to the online series

The data was previously published as an experimental series, in original data only, as an Appendix to the Retail Trade publication. It was disaggregated by whether the retailer was "Pure-play" (online only) or "Multi-channel" (mix of online and physical stores).

Over time, the split between Pure-play and Multi-channel remained stable, with Pure-play online retailers averaging 37.7% of total online sales.

In April 2021, Pure-play retailers made up 30.2% of online sales and 2.8% of total sales. Online sales for multi-channel retailers made up 6.4% of total retail sales. 

The online series continues to use the same source data, and represents purchases made via the internet from employing retail businesses who predominately sell to households. The series excludes direct imports (e.g. purchased directly from an overseas website) and sales from 'households-to-households' through third party websites for example. More information can be found in the information paper Measurement of Online Retail Trade in Macroeconomics (cat. no. 8501.0.55.007).

Seasonal adjustment has been calculated for the new series using the concurrent seasonal adjustment method, meaning that seasonal factors are re-estimated each time a new data point becomes available. Unusual real-world events, such as COVID-19, can distort estimates calculated using the method. Like the total retail series, trend cannot be calculated due to the volatility of the retail series during COVID-19.

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