The number of shoppers visiting UK stores has continued to return – gradually – towards pre-pandemic levels in the first month free of Covid-19 restrictions in England and Northern Ireland, the latest footfall data suggests.
Footfall across UK retail locations was 15.4% lower in March 2022 than it was three years earlier, in pre-pandemic March 2019, according to the BRC/Sensormatic IQ Footfall Monitor for March 2022. The monitor is now using 2019 pre-pandemic figures, rather than year-on-year figures, in order to exclude the large pandemic and lockdown-driven fluctuations that have appeared in recent years.
March footfall improved by 1.2 percentage points compared to February 2022 and is above the three-month average decline of 15.9%. UK footfall was well ahead of other European markets on the same comparison, including France (-25.5%), Germany (-37.5%) and Italy (-38.6%).
Online sales figures for the month are not yet available, but the BRC/KPMG Retail Sales Index for February 2022 found that the trend of improving in-store sales continued, with a corresponding decline in online sales. However, just as footfall remains lower than before the pandemic, so ecommerce is still higher than it was, with 41% of non-food retail sales made online in February 2022.
Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the British Retail Consortium (BRC), says: “March saw another gradual improvement to footfall levels across the UK. As the first full month without coronavirus restrictions in England and Northern Ireland, consumers were able to shop with a greater sense of normality, spurred on by some spring sunshine. While all UK shopping locations enjoyed higher footfall levels than earlier in the pandemic, shopping centres saw a significant improvement for the first time in 2022, as shoppers browsed multiple stores in preparation for the summer season.”
Footfall performance was stronger, on the three-year comparison, on retail parks at -7.3% – which represents a 5.1percentage point (pp) improvement from February, and on the three month average decline of 10.9%.
High street footfall was 17.8% lower over the same period, – a 3.1pp improvement on February and ahead of the three-month trend (-19.9%). But the number of people visiting shopping centres is still 35.8% lower than March 2019. That’s a 4.3pp improvement on February and above the three-month trend (-38.9%).
Andy Sumpter, retail consultant EMEA for Sensormatic Solutions, says: “As we surpass two years since the first Covid-19 lockdown, we might begin to see where retail footfall trends will settle down as retail resets. With the High Street’s recovery hitting its best performance since October and UK shopper traffic tracking ahead of its European counterparts, retailers’ optimism will be met with a healthy dose of realism. While Covid-19 restrictions may be loosening, the nation’s belts may start to tighten as the impact of the cost-of-living squeeze and price inflation accelerates, and the knock-on effect of the energy cap rise and increased National Insurance contributions this month remain unknown as they look ahead into April and beyond. However, while price sensitivity may be growing among UK consumers, spending and brand loyalty seem to be ‘stickier’ in-store, with our recent research showing over a third were less price sensitive when shopping in-store compared to when they bought items online, and half felt more loyal to the bricks-and-mortar brands they shop with.”
Challenges lie ahead with potential effects on both future retail footfall and sales, says Dickinson. “There are many challenges on the horizon as consumer confidence fell to its lowest levels in 16 months,” she says. “Consumers are now feeling the effects of rising living costs, increased food and fuel prices, and are also anticipating higher energy prices from April 1. The impact on retail footfall and retail sales across both stores and online is yet to be seen, but as belts continue to tighten and prices continue to rise, it will be a difficult road ahead for consumers.”