Evidence that the nation turned online for the post-Christmas sales came as figures out this week showed footfall in January was 1.3% down on a year ago.
That all, shown in the BRC/Springboard Footfall & Vacancies Monitor for January 2017, is the steepest since the fall of 2.8% recorded in June 2016. January’s figure is also below the three month average of 0.8%.
Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the British Retail Consortium ??, said: “The relentless downward trend in footfall picked up pace again in January as shopper numbers fell by 1.3% over the same period in the previous year, following a 0.2% decline in December. It was a fairly consistent picture across different retail locations; with the high street, which saw a modest bounceback the previous month, failing to draw in shoppers.
“January’s sluggish non-food sales, which undoubtedly corresponded with the dip in footfall below last year, go some way to explaining these underwhelming figures. Stores bore the brunt of the sales slowdown; posting their deepest three-month decline on record as online was the preferred shopping channel for the month’s clearance sales.”
The figures came as the national town centre vacancy rate dropped to 9.4%, its lowest rate since January 2016, when it stood at 8.7%. Dickinson said that the shop vacancy rates showed a widening between successful and vulnerable locations.
The fall in footfall affected all three key types of retail locations that were measured. High street footfall fell 0.8% in January on the year before, when it had risen by 0.2%. This is behind the three-month average of -0.1%.
Footfall in retail parks fell year-on-year for the third consecutive month, contrasting with January 2016 when footfall there grew by 5.2% in Retail Parks. Footfall in shopping centres fell for the twelfth consecutive month in January.
“Our quarterly vacancy rate data shows shop vacancies virtually unchanged at 9.4 per cent of all shops compared 9.5 per cent in October. On a regional level, it was London that saw the strongest improvement, with the proportion of empty shops falling from 9.5 to 8.4 per cent over the three months to January. However, in some parts of the country the number of empty shops remains worryingly high and act merely as a blot on landscape of local communities. And while the overall the rate has tended to remain around 9 to 10 per cent since July 2015, the variation between successful and vulnerable locations grows ever wider.
Diane Wehrle, marketing and insights director at Springboard ??, said: “At a time when retail is being re-imagined as customers seek more engaging experiences in our high streets, town centres and retail park and centres, the incentive for retailers to innovate and invest in physical space is being curtailed by the upward only trajectory of business rates. This disincentive needs to be removed and the burden reduced thereby encouraging, rather than deterring, investment to the benefit of those local communities most impacted.
“The -1.3% drop in footfall across the UK’s bricks and mortar destinations in January may be a sign of tougher things to come in 2017. Not only was it a noticeably larger drop than the -0.2% in December; but it was the steepest decline since June 2016, when footfall was impacted in the preceding weeks and in the immediate aftermath of the EU referendum.
“The results are consistent with longer term footfall trends, with an underperformance of shopping centres against high streets and retail parks. Of significance is that footfall is correlating closely with retail sales, with all sales results published so far showing a poorer performance in January than in January 2016. Springboard’s own data on bricks and mortar sales showed a -1.5% drop in January from January 2015.
“The UK vacancy rate improved from 9.5% in October to 9.4% in January. This can be partly explained by the churn of occupancy from retail to hospitality, a feature of the last year, but is also due the fact that the vacancy rate reflects footfall and sales, and so lags behind these as a performance indicator. But it does demonstrate that retail destinations are adapting, with new occupiers offering a much demanded all round customer experience.”