Lack of shoppers heightens fears for Christmas on the high street

The number of shoppers heading to UK high streets slumped last month by its biggest amount since the heavy snowfall last December. A sharp north-south divide is also developing, reinforcing fears for the key Christmas period.

Total footfall in high streets, out-of-town retail parks and shopping centres tumbled by 2.5 per cent between 1 August and the end of October – the worst overall figure this year, the British Retail Consortium (BRC) said. Stephen Robertson, its director-general, added: "Footfall is down on a year ago in all types of retail locations."

However, high street shops suffered the biggest fall – 4.7 per cent – in customers in October, compared to a more modest decline of 1.6 per cent in out-of-town retail parks and a 2.2 per cent drop in shopping centres.

Mr Robertson said: "In October, UK high streets saw the sharpest drop in footfall since last December's blizzards. A successful Christmas will be a lifeline for many retailers and they will be hoping that sort of disruption doesn't add to their woes this time around."

Over the past 12 months, the high street has been hit the hardest with a 2.7 per cent fall in footfall, although there are huge discrepancies in different parts of the country, particularly between the north and south. The number of visitors to London's high streets only fell by 0.1 per cent, and rose by 2.9 per cent in the South-east and by 1.8 per cent in Wales. In contrast, footfall tumbled by 10.4 per cent in the West Midlands, 9 per cent in Scotland and by 5.5 per cent in Northern Ireland.

Further downbeat data showed that 11.1 per cent of town centre shops were vacant in October, although this is a 0.1 per cent improvement on last year.

Mr Robertson said: "The town centre vacancy rate hasn't worsened but is still alarmingly high."

The accountant BDO does not expect retail spending to grow by more than 2 per cent this Christmas. A survey by PwC last week found that 42 per cent of retailers were holding sales or running discout promotions.

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