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Visitors return to  UK shops at their highest rate since before Covid-19: BRC

Shoppers have steadily returned to high streets post-pandemic Image: Shutterstock

More people visited UK shops last month than at any point since the pandemic started, despite ongoing disruption from rail strikes, new figures suggest. Footfall for the whole of 2022 was also higher than in 2021, according to the monthly BRC-Sensormatic IQ Footfall Monitor.

UK footfall was 7.3% lower in December 2022 than in pre-pandemic December 2019, the report found. That represents a six percentage point (6pp) improvement from November 2022. The figure is also an improvement on the three month trend, which saw footfall 10.2% lower than the same period in 2019.

Over the whole of 2022, UK footfall was 11.8% below pre-pandemic 2019, the monitor suggests. That marks an improvement on 2021 when footfall was a third (33.2%) below that level. 

UK footfall in 2022 was also 15.1% higher than over the whole of 2021. But while more visitors went to high streets (+19.7%) and shopping centres (+13.4%), slightly fewer went to retail parks (-1.6%). 

Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the British Retail Consortium, says: “Footfall reached its highest level since the start of the pandemic in December. A combination of rail disruption and the cold snap kept many shoppers from visiting town centres and high streets in the last week before Christmas. Meanwhile, the postal strikes forced others to head in for the last week to secure last minute gifts in-store.

“Historically low consumer confidence and 30-year-high inflation made for an exceptionally difficult year for consumers and retailers, with footfall down over 10% on pre-pandemic levels. Nonetheless, this was still a significant improvement on the previous two years when the pandemic kept many people at home. Although retailers’ input costs show little sign of easing in 2023, they continue to do all they can to keep prices affordable and tempt customers in.”

The recovery was most pronounced on the high street. Although footfall was 9.3% lower than in December 2019, it was also ahead of the trend both over one month (+4.3pp) and three months (-11%). 

In shopping centres, footfall remained well under December 2019 levels (-19.9%) but was higher than the trend over both one month (+3.3pp) and three months (-20.9%).

Retail park footfall, which was 5.2% lower than in December 2019, continued to be closest to 2019 levels. But the figure is also behind the recent trend, both compared to last month (-1pp) and to the three month average (-4.5%). 

Andy Sumpter, retail consultant EMEA for retail technology business Sensormatic Solutions, says: “Physical retail rallied in December, with store performance last month posting its best footfall counts compared to pre-pandemic figures all year. Retailers rose above an onslaught of festive disruption, from snow chaos to rail and mail strikes impacting consumers’ shopping journeys both on- and off-line, disrupting pre-Christmas travel to shopping hubs and creating online delivery backlogs and delays. And, once again, it was the in-store teams that kept retailers’ doors open and able to continue to serve their customers and communities. Looking ahead to 2023, retailers will be hoping for more stability and support to help them chart a trading course for success in the light of continued economic headwinds, as they adapt their retail offers to the needs of the cost-of-living consumer.”

Commenting on the figures, Melissa Minkow, director of retail strategy at digital transformation consultancy CI&T, says: “That December shopper footfall reached its highest level since the beginning of the pandemic is a positive sign for brick-and-mortar in the year to come. The stabilisation of inventory is something we should expect to see increasingly from retailers, going forward, and that has a large impact on consumers’ shopping behaviours.

“Further, perhaps the holidays served as a reminder to consumers that in-store shopping can still be efficient and worthwhile. These are significant numbers for those reasons.”

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