Coronavirus: UK retailers slash prices of tissues, rice and handwash

Tom Belger
Finance and policy reporter
A man uses hand sanitiser gel. (Ben Birchall/PA)

Prices have begun to fall for goods that have soared in popularity during the pandemic, including toilet roll, handwash and several kinds of long-life food and drink.

New data on Thursday showed a decline in online prices last week for a list of household and food goods that consumers began snapping up in early stages of the pandemic.

The virtual basket was compiled by the Office for National Statistics as a rough-and-ready new “experimental” measure of inflation, and comes alongside its more wide-ranging and widely followed consumer price index (CPI) figures released earlier this week. The CPI figure showed inflation at a four-year low.

Average online prices for such products between 11 and 17 May were 0.2% lower than the previous week.

Pasta sauce was the item that saw the steepest decline in average prices online, down 1.6%. Tissues, kitchen and toilet roll, pet food, handwash, long-life milk, rice and paracetamol also saw declines.

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All had seen sales surge in the early phase of the pandemic as a stockpiling frenzy swept the UK. Stockpiling is widely seen to have eased in recent weeks while households incomes are increasingly strained, perhaps leaving some retailers over-stocked⁠ and pressured to slash prices. The ONS itself did not suggest why prices had declined however, or release sales volumes.

But a Confederation of British Industry (CBI) survey at the end of April showed supermarkets reporting a decline in stockpiling last month. "Households may have been dipping into stockpiles built up prior to the lockdown or tightening their belts more generally as incomes take a hit," said the CBI’s chief economist Rain Newton-Smith at the time.

READ MORE: UK economy keeps shrinking at faster rate than in 2008 crisis

Not all prices have fallen over the past fortnight. Tinned beans, tinned soup, spray cleaning products, nappies and baby food prices all edged slightly higher, though none by more than 0.4% week-on-week.

The ONS coronavirus data also shone a light on the gradual reopening of the UK economy as lockdown restrictions have eased and the government encouraged many workers to get back to workplaces.

More than one in 20 firms trading in late May said they had previously been closed and only restarted within the previous fortnight. The accommodation and food services sector had the highest proportion of firms restarting trade. Almost one in five of those open by 3 May had reopened in the prior two weeks.

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