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Fewer Christmas shoppers hit UK high streets, with poor weather and early response to Omicron both potential factors

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Fewer Christmas shoppers hit UK high streets last week, compared to the same time last year. The suggestion is that people at first stayed home because of poor weather, and later in an early response to the tightening of restrictions in response to the Omicron Covid-19 variant. It’s possible that people who stayed away from shops have bought online instead. 

The number of people visiting UK shops fell by 1.1% last week, compared to the previous week, as a result of a 2.7% fall in visits to the high street. The decline was especially strong in central London (-3%), while Springboard’s Central London Back to the Office benchmark fell by 5.3%. Visits to retail parks (+0.04%) and shopping centres (+1.1%) were well up on last year. Plan B restrictions, announced last week, come into force today, with workers now advised to work from home where they can, while shoppers have had to wear masks when they go into stores since last week. It may well be that people are taking a cautious approach to the variant and deciding to stay at home.

On Tuesday alone – when Storm Barra hit – footfall was 11.1% down overall, with the sharpest declines on high streets (-15.2%), followed by shopping centres (-7.7%) and retail parks (-5.8%). The number of people visiting UK shops had been expected to rise last weekend, in the wake of Storm Barra. But while numbers were expected to improve at the weekend, compared to the previous one, that did not happen. Instead Saturday footfall fell by 1.2%, with only a small increase in shopping centre visits (+0.1%). Footfall peaked on Friday (+3.9%) and especially in shopping centres (+6.8%).

Lat week’s footfall was down compared to the same period in pre-pandemic 2019 (-17.7%), but well ahead of last year (+18.1%), when a pre-Christmas non-essential retail lockdown was just ending. Visits were down at all types of locations, compared to the same period in 2019, led by shopping centres (-23.1%), high streets (-21.1%) and retail parks (-4.8%). They were also up at all locations compared to the same period last year, led by high streets (+25.8%), shopping centres (+16.1%) and retail parks (+3.7%). 

Diane Wehrle, insights director at Springboard, says: “The hoped for pre-Christmas boost in trading did not materialise last week, with footfall in UK retail destinations declining from the week before, all of which was driven by a reduction in activity in high streets. Footfall did rise in retail parks and shopping centres, but only by a marginal amount which wasn’t enough to deliver an uplift overall.

“The week as a whole was impacted by a particularly poor result on Tuesday when there was double digit decline from the week before, undoubtedly due to severe weather, however footfall on Saturday – the peak trading day – was subdued with a marginal drop from the week before whilst there had been rises on each of the previous three days.

“The poor result on Saturday may well be the first signs of the impact of the Plan B restrictions which, although limited to compulsory mask-wearing in stores up to the end of last week, is likely to have increased nervousness amongst consumers around visiting busy destinations during peak shopping periods. Indeed there were already early signs showing last week, with declines in footfall from the week before in Central London and large cities outside of the capital whilst footfall in market towns – which are smaller more local high streets – rose from the week before. 

“Whilst Plan B restrictions, such as advice to work from home if possible, don’t come into force until today, it appears to have already had an impact last week, with a decline in Springboard’s Central London Back to the Office benchmark that was nearly double the drop in footfall in Central London as a whole.” 

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