Numbers visiting UK stores now closer to pre-pandemic levels following ending of Covid-19 restrictions

A year on from reopening from lockdown

A year on from reopening from lockdown

The number of people visiting UK shops is now closer to pre-pandemic levels than in other key European countries, the latest footfall figures suggest. The change comes as the UK moves away from Covid-19 restrictions, and despite the effects of stormy weather in the second half of the month.

The BRC-Sensormatic IQ Footfall Monitor for February 2022 today suggests that UK footfall was 14.9% down in February 2022, compared to two years earlier. That’s a 2.2 percentage point (pp) improvement on January and puts the number of people visiting UK shops closer to pre-pandemic levels than the three-month average (-17.2%).

The BRC monitor compares figures since March 2021 to pre-pandemic levels two years earlier in order to exclude the fluctuations seen during Covid-19 restrictions and lockdowns.

The figures suggest that shoppers are returning faster to UK streets than they are in Spain (-16.4% in February, compared to February 2020), France (-20.3%), Italy (-29.1%) and Germany (-42.6%).

Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the British Retail Consortium (BRC), says: “UK footfall led the major European economies in February, as the steady return to the office increased shopper numbers in many towns and city centres. A promising start to the month was briefly dampened by Storm Eunice, before bouncing back in the final week of February, to its highest level since the pandemic began. This coincided with the easing of Covid restrictions in England. Overall, the major cities enjoyed the biggest improvements, particularly London, Manchester, and Birmingham.

“Retailers, large and small, will welcome the return of customers to their stores – a sign their innovation and investment in their physical and digital offerings is working. However, challenges remain; consumer confidence has been greatly impacted by rising inflation, while the return of hospitality and tourism will create additional competition. Retailers will need to continue the momentum to keep consumers engaged.”

Footfall was closest to normal on retail parks (-10.2%), which represents an improvement on the three month trend (-10.7%). On high streets, visitor numbers were 19.4% down on 2020, although 4.8pp better than in January 2022, and an improvement on the three-month average decline (-22.4%). In shopping centres, footfall was still 35.2% down on 2020. That is, however, 2.3pp better than in January and an improvement on the three month trend (-36.8%).

Changing shape of shopping

Andy Sumpter, retail consultant EMEA for Sensormatic Solutions, says: “February saw an improving picture for the High Street as shopper traffic continued to recover. Total UK footfall reported the highest number of shopper counts seen since pre-pandemic levels in the last week of the month and the UK now leads the top five European markets’ footfall recovery, suggesting a growing confidence among shoppers, with UK Governments announcing the further easing and ending of covid restrictions.

“And while this represents what many, not least retailers, hope will be the ‘beginning of the end’ of the covid crisis – our latest data shows consumer concern about in-store safety fell by -18 percentage points year-on-year – shoppers now face new and growing pressures. The cost-of-living squeeze and inflation, which is putting downward pressures on disposable income, and a volatile macroeconomic and geopolitical climate could create a perfect storm of uncertainty for consumers, which could still impact the long-term retail recovery as it looks to build back post-pandemic.”

In recent months, UK footfall has recovered steadily while the proportion of sales taking place online has reduced from pandemic lockdown peaks – but to a level that’s still higher than before the pandemic. It will be interesting to see what has changed when February online sales figures are published later this month.

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