More shoppers ventured out to the shops as Covid restrictions stopped being legally enforceable – but numbers are not yet recovered to pre-pandemic levels, and also fell short of forecasts.
Many retailers are still keeping restrictions in place, and studies suggest that confidence is low that the current freedoms will last.
The number of people going to UK shops rose by 12.7% over the course of yesterday, to 5pm, compared to the same day last week, according to Springboard figures. The sharpest rise was in the morning, when footfall by 11am was 17% up on the previous year before falling later in the day. Over the course of the day, high streets (+14.7%) saw the biggest improvement, perhaps thanks to sunny weather, followed by shopping centres (+13.6%) and retail parks (+7.3%).
But visitor numbers were still almost a quarter (-24.9%) down compared to the same day in pre-pandemic 2019. And they were also down compared to the Springboard forecast (+19.7%). Visitor numbers had been expected to be well ahead thanks to the start of the summer holidays and the decision by many to stay in this country this year. Making the forecast, Diane Wehrle, insights director at Springboard, said: “Despite the removal of covid restrictions, the recently increased infection rate is likely to make some shoppers more cautious about venturing out into what could be busy shopping environments. Additionally, many workers have not yet returned to their offices and are unlikely to do so full time, which particularly impacts larger towns and cities the volumes of footfall are greatest.”
The figures come as some retailers report evidence of excitement online, ahead of hospitality openings. Online retail brand PrettyLittleThing says it has seen a strong increase in searches for ‘going out’ dresses, which rose by 21% in the past week – with searches for halter neck (+223%) and body con (+100%) rising quickly.
Despite the arrival of ‘freedom day’, many retailers have kept safety measures in place. At Sainsbury’s, customers and staff are still asked to wear a face covering. This is in response to feedback from both customers and staff that showed the majority want to keep face masks in place. Screens that divide self-service checkouts and checkout queues will gradually be removed in England, but will tay in place between checkout staff and the customers they are serving.
Simon Roberts, Sainsbury’s chief executive, says: “As we respond to the recent change in government guidance, we know that safety is still top of mind for many of our colleagues and customers. Our colleagues’ safety is vital and many of our colleagues would feel more comfortable if those who can wear face coverings continue to wear them. We’ve listened closely to our customers too and they are telling us the same. We’re asking everyone to be considerate and, while we understand wearing a face covering will now be a personal choice, we want to ensure we best support and protect each other in the weeks and months ahead.”
Most UK adults are yet to be convinced that shopping will return to pre-pandemic levels, with four in five not confident in the government’s ability to prevent another lockdown, research suggests.
Personal finance website NerdWallet questioned 2,000 UK adults and found that 74% of respondents lack confidence that the UK economy will fully recover from the damage caused by the pandemic. The same percentage say they are not ‘reasonably confident’ that consumer spending will return to where it was in 2019, while only one in five feels ‘reasonably confident’ that the government can prevent another lockdown this year.
That said, 42% are planning to increase their spending from current levels by the end of this year, and 43% will continue to spend as the are now – although 54% are not reasonably confident of a regular income stream until the end of this year. Some 85% believe that UK adults should take their own steps to help support the UK economy on the way out of lockdown, including wearing face masks (57%), holidaying in the UK (44%) and spending at local pubs and restaurants (39%). Just over a quarter (29%) say there’s a responsibility to shop at businesses that have been hard hit by the pandemic.
Jason Tavaria, chief executive of locker delivery company InPost, says that many would not be feeling overjoyed on ‘freedom day’. “The prospect of returning to the high street against the backdrop of a surge in Covid cases across the UK, will feel more like a gamble than a celebration,” he says. “And without the social distancing safety net in place, nor a requirement to wear a mask, many shoppers will feel it’s just not worth the risk of rushing back to shop in person – especially those who are at risk and those who aren’t double vaccinated.
“The reality is that many consumers will feel more comfortable shopping online. Retailers need to continue to be empathetic to these very real concerns about Covid and use all the tools at their disposal to give customers both choice and convenience as restrictions disappear. Out-of-home options such as lockers are a practical route to helping deliver a secure, safe and contact-free experience. Instead of having to wait around in queues, customers are able to pick up or return their goods on their own watch, and from a location that suits them. We are currently in a very sensitive situation and retailers must prioritise the safety of customers above all else.”
Meanwhile, a fifth (20%) of small and medium-sized retailers had hoped that yesterday would be the biggest trading day since Christmas, with 43% of SMEs still worried about what the future would bring, according to a Business of Change report from PayPal. The report questioned more than 1,000 SMEs and found 63% believe the impact of the pandemic has permanently changed the way consumers spend on the high street. Two in five (40%) ay they think shoppers will now mostly buy online, and believe high street spending will never recover to pre-pandemic levels. Even with all restrictions lifted, 60% believe online shopping will win. That’s encouraged 73% of British SMEs to learn new digital skills, especially around social media marketing (21%), ecommerce (16%) and taking digital payments (11%).
Ben Ramsden, head of SME at PayPal, says: “The past year and a half has been one of the most challenging periods for UK small businesses which has demanded a complete rethink for most day-to-day operations. Business owners have shown incredible resilience and learnt a range of new digital skills, which will now be crucial in powering their recovery. We will continue to support entrepreneurs as ecommerce opportunities grow so that they can keep pace as customer experience and needs evolve.”