High street vacancies jump to record high

Declining footfall, poor sales and more shop closures set alarm bells ringing

Shop vacancy rates have hit a record high to set "alarm bells ringing" with more stores set to be thrown on the market over the coming weeks with the expected liquidation of Comet, the failed electricals retailer.

Footfall also tumbled in October to reinforce just how challenging trading conditions remain on the high street ahead of the crucial Christmas period, as the five-year consumer downturn shows few signs of abating.

The vacancy rate for UK town centre shops jumped to 11.3 per cent last month from 10.9 per cent in July, according to the British Retail Consortium and Springboard survey, with Northern Ireland having the most empty stores.

Stephen Robertson, the BRC's director general, said: "This new high in empty shop numbers really sets alarm bells ringing. It's the worst vacancy rate since the survey began in July 2011, and confirms that financial challenges for both customers and retailers are far from over."

The dire data comes as Deloitte, the administrator to Comet, plans to close 41 stores by the end of November, unless a buyer can be found for the stricken chain, which seems highly unlikely. The accountancy firm began a "closing down sale" in 27 Comet stores on Saturday.

While big chains, such as John Lewis, Next, Debenhams and Sainsbury's, continue to grow profits, retail sales volumes tumbled by a worse-than expected 0.8 per cent in October, according to the Office for National Statistics.

A worrying 20 per cent of town centre shops in Northern Ireland are now empty, while the figure is 15.1 per cent in Wales and 14.6 per cent in the North and Yorkshire.

The Olympics helped footfall on the high street to inch up by 0.3 per cent in August, but it tumbled by 2.6 per cent last month. Visitors to out-of-town retail parks also fell by 0.5 per cent and by 2.1 per cent to shopping centres in October.

Mr Robertson said: "Many retailers are battling stagnating sales and rising costs, and next year's threatened business rates increase can only make matters worse. If the Government wants to breathe life back into our town centres and ensure the retail industry can play its full role in job creation it needs to freeze rates in 2013."

Business rates have risen by more than 10 per cent in the last two years, and are set to rise by 2.6 per cent in April next year, if they are based on September's retail price index.

However, Mr Robertson pointed out that overall footfall in the UK was only down by 0.4 per cent over the three months to October, an improvement on the 3.3 per cent fall in the previous quarter to May.

Mr Robertson said: "It's a little more cheering to see footfall suffering less than the previous quarter, but shopper numbers were still no better than a year ago. The figures follow a similar pattern to our retail sales monitoring. September's cold snap drew the crowds stocking up on warmer clothing. But, while the Olympics appears to have brought people out on to high streets, that didn't translate into a surge in spending."

This week, the bike retailer Halfords, the maternity specialist Mothercare, and the wine warehouse chain Majestic Wine, as well as the fashion groups New Look, Topshop-owner Arcadia, and French Connection, will update on trading.