Online sales, February 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 2.2% in February 2021, in seasonally adjusted terms, following a rise of 1.7% in January 2021, and a fall of 2.1% in December 2020.

In through-the-year terms, the seasonally adjusted series rose 52.5% compared to February 2020. In January 2021, sales had been 62.8% above January 2020. The result is broadly consistent with levels seen throughout 2020, as online sales have been elevated from April 2020. 

Food and Non-food

Online sales fell for both the Food group (-1.2%), and the Non-food group (-2.7%), in February 2021, in seasonally adjusted terms. The falls come despite lockdown restrictions in Victoria and Western Australia, which would typically increase online sales through physical stores switching to online sales methods.

The fall in Food online sales follows a rise of 4.6% in January 2021, and a rise of 6.3% in December 2020. Annual growth remains elevated at 62.8%, demonstrating the growth in online food purchases during the pandemic.

Non-food online sales fell 2.7% month-on-month, in seasonally adjusted terms, following a 0.5% rise in January 2021. Through-the-year levels have eased to 48.4% compared to February 2021, in seasonally adjusted terms. Annual growth was as high as 76% in August 2020.

As a proportion of total grouped industry turnover, Non-food online sales were 14.2% of total Non-food sales in February 2021, in original terms. The proportion of total Food sales made online was 5.4% in February, in original terms.

Total online sales were 9.3% of total sales in February, which is a slight rise from January 2021 (9.1%). It remains elevated as a proportion when compared to February 2020 (6.6%).

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 38.0% of total online sales. 

In February 2021, Pure-play retailers made up 34.5% of online sales and 3.2% of total sales. Online sales for multi-channel retailers made up 6.1% 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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