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Number of people visiting UK shops not set to get back to pre-pandemic levels ‘any time soon’

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The number of people visiting UK shops “will not return to pre-pandemic levels any time soon,” says Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the British Retail Consortium.

Dickinson, who was speaking as January footfall figures showed 17.1% fewer people visited UK shops between January 2 and 29 2022 than did in pre-pandemic January 2020, says that presents both challenges and opportunities to retailers.

“As we emerge out of the Omicron wave and the return to the office gains momentum, we are hopeful footfall will continue to improve,” says Dickinson. “Yet, even as restrictions are eased, retail footfall will not return to pre-pandemic levels any time soon. This poses a challenge to many town and city centre retailers who continue be impacted to from lower commuter numbers. However, opportunities remain; innovative retailers are reacting to new consumer behaviours by investing in physical and digital offerings in order to draw in new customers. The return of other sectors, from hospitality to tourism, may create additional competition for customer spending, but it also brings new life and custom to many vital shopping destinations.”

The latest BRC-Sensormatic IQ Footfall Monitor for January 2022 shows January footfall improved 1.5 percentage points on December, but remained 17.1% lower than in January 2020. Shopping centres saw the sharpest decline, with footfall down by more than a third on January 2020, and 0.9 percentage points (pp) lower than in December 2021. The number of people visiting high streets was almost a quarter (24.2%) lower than 2020, and 1.1pp lower than in December. Retail park visitor numbers were 13% lower than in January 2020, and 3.8pp lower than in December.

The shallowest decline in footfall was in Northern Ireland (-9.5%), followed by Scotland (-16.2%), Wales (-16.9%) and England (-19.8%).

Dickinson says that while fewer people visited retail parks and shopping centres in January, those that did went to more shops at each. “It is likely,” she says, “the January sales influenced this behaviour, encouraging consumers to shop around in their quest to find the best deals. Footfall failed to improve consistently across the UK, with London yet to benefit from the end of Plan B measures announced in mid-January.”

Andy Sumpter, retail consultant EMEA for Sensormatic Solutions, says: “While total retail shopper traffic improved marginally on December’s figures, footfall’s recovery remains plateaued. January became the fourth successive month in which shopper counts struggled to reach the highest recovery levels seen back in October. With the Government dropping Covid Plan B curbs and work from home guidance, retailers will be hoping consumer confidence will also return along with the commuter trade to boost footfall and put a spring back in to the step of the High Street’s recovery.”

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