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Shop vacancies reduce as independent retailers move into shops left empty by chain stores: research

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Independent retailers moved into shops vacated by chain stores in the run up to Christmas, helping to slightly reduce the empty shop rate in the final months of 2021, new data suggests.

In the final quarter of 2021, 14.4% of all shops in Great Britain were empty, according to the latest figures from the Local Data Company (LDC) and the British Retail Consortium (BRC). That’s 0.1 percentage points (pp) below the level of the previous quarter, but 0.7pp higher than the same point in 2020.

LDC director Lucy Stainton says it’s encouraging to see the increase in empty units start to stabilise after a sharp rise in the past two years. “This is the first real indication that the most significant structural impacts of the pandemic are potentially at their peak for certain regions and operators, landlords and local government alike can start to rebuild after a particularly turbulent period.

“We are still seeing rationalisation across many of the chain retailers and leisure operators reflected in these latest statistics but the growth in the number of independent businesses is helping stem further increases in vacant units. This is particularly key to note as having more independent operators alongside larger brands creates more diverse and entertaining spaces for consumers, which will further bolster attractiveness and therefore recovery.”

Retail locations

Retail parks continued to have the fewest vacancies, with 11.3% of all shops empty – the same as last year. But year-on-year vacancies fell slightly from a higher level on high streets (14.4%) and at shopping centres (-0.3pp to 19.1%). Shopping centre vacancies were, however, 2% higher than at the same time last year.

“The final quarter of 2021 offered the first glimmers of hope for Britain’s beleaguered shopping destinations as the number of shuttered shops fell for the first time since the start of 2018,” says Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the BRC. “The lowest vacancy rates were seen in the South, where higher disposable income and greater business investment meant vacant storefronts were more quickly repurposed. Meanwhile Scotland and the North continue to see much higher vacancy rates, with the North East at almost one in five shops closed. It remains to be seen how Omicron will have impacted the number of store closures, but given the third lockdown in England had little impact on the vacancy rate we are hopeful that the trajectory will remain positive. However, with hybrid working unlikely to disappear any time soon, it will be difficult for vacancy rates to fully recover in our town and city centres.

“Shuttered shops diminish the vibrancy of local high streets, costing jobs and damaging local communities. Business rates reform remains the most effective way of helping drive much needed investment to left-behind communities all over the UK. If the Government is serious about its levelling up agenda, it must ensure that a cut to the rates burden features at the centre of its forthcoming White Paper.”

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