The number of people visiting shops started to recover as non-essential retail opened last month – but is still lagging well behind pre-pandemic levels. About half as many people visited shopping centres during the month than did in April 2019, before the emergence of Covid-19.
These are the central findings of the BRC-Sensormatic IQ report for April 2021, which makes a two-year comparison in order to exclude the turbulence that shops experienced in the lockdowns of 2020.
The study finds that total footfall started to improve as shops reopened in April, compared to the previous month of March (+28.7%). But numbers were still 40% down when compared to April 2019.
Retail parks saw the greatest recover in visitor numbers most recovered – although shopper traffic is still 30.5% down on two years ago. That’s a 6.3 percentage point improvement on March 2021, and above the average for the last three months (-35.4%).
At the other end of the range, shopping centres visitor numbers have almost halved (-49.8%), although they are recovering from the three-month average (-67.2%). High street traffic is also sharply down on two years ago (-43.9%), but, again, appears to be recovering from the three months average (-61.2%).
The figures suggest the decline in visitor numbers may have bottomed out, but is still well short of the numbers that all locations used to see.
By geography, the sharpest decline in footfall was in Northern Ireland (-55.4%) followed by Scotland (-52.1%), England (-384%) and Wales (-38.2%) – largely reflecting the order in which non-essential shops reopened in the different nations of the UK.
Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the British Retail Consortium (BRC), says: “With the easing of restrictions on retail and some hospitality on April 12, consumers have been returning to their local high streets, shopping centres and retail parks. This is reflected in the improving levels of footfall seen across the country, as consumers visit their favourite stores post-lockdown.
“While shops have worked incredibly hard to provide consumers with a safe and enjoyable shopping experience, it is unlikely we will see a return to pre-pandemic levels of footfall any time any time soon, as social distancing measures naturally restrict retailers’ capacity. Retail parks continued to fare better than shopping centres and high streets, as they benefit from the presence of large stores, more space and on-site parking. However, it was encouraging to see footfall improve across all retail sites compared to the lockdown months.
“Growing consumer demand and footfall in the months ahead will be vital for the survival of many retailers, as they start to see costs increasing as many stores reopen and colleagues return from furlough.”
Andy Sumpter, retail consultant EMEA for retail technology specialist Sensormatic Solutions, says: “Retailers will be hoping that the lift in shopper traffic seen during the first few weeks of unlocking can be sustained past pent-up demand in order to fuel long-term recovery. Our research shows an overwhelming amount of consumer support for bricks-and-mortar retail, with 71% of shoppers vowing to make a conscious effort to shop in-store now retail’s reopened, with many having missed the experience of in-store shopping when lockdown shuttered shops and other saying ‘screen fatigue’ had set in. Retailers will be counting on shoppers acting on that sentiment and voting with their feet to support the shops that serve their communities.”
Commenting on the figures, Hayley-Jayne Cone, chief customer officer at retail software company JRNI, says: “As UK retail cautiously breathes out, changes in footfall will be inevitable. However we should not assume that it is a sign that the high street will ever be as it was – the shopper experience must continue to evolve to maintain loyalty. It’s no longer a case of online or in-store. The experience economy is here. That means consumers want to buy into a reimagined shopping experience, one that is personalised and unique to them.
“Digital shopping and services like curbside pick-up and remote appointments have become an expected way for consumers to engage with their favourite retailers during lockdown. Customers expect them post-pandemic. They want omnichannel experiences and continual communication. The retailers who will succeed in the post pandemic world are those that put the customer first, adapt processes to a safer and often remote model, and provide a continuous, frictionless journey for every shopper.”
Gizem Günday, partner at consultancy McKinsey & Company, says: “A steady flow on the high street is the first step to a new normal. Although, a full-scale return to brick-and-mortar stores should not be expected.
“Our UK consumer Sentiment Pulse revealed that 25% of consumers are waiting for broader vaccination coverage before returning to out-of-home activities. While we expect the vaccine rollout to have a positive impact on spend, this will likely accelerate only once the younger generations are vaccinated.
“Consumers intend to splurge or treat themselves: The appetite to do so was shared by 47% of consumers, with a higher propensity to splurge in younger consumers, especially Gen Z, reaching more than 80%.”