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The ongoing strikes across public sectors and Royal Mail combined with the cold snap in December created a perfect storm for a return to in-person shopping, with shoppers opting to visit their local high streets to browse for gifts.
In fact, total UK footfall for 2022 was just 11.8% below pre-pandemic levels, a big improvement on 2021 footfall which was 33.2% below pre-pandemic levels, according to research from the British Retail Consortium (BRC) and IGD.
According to Helen Dickinson OBE, CEO of the BRC, “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.”
Paul Martin, UK head of retail at KPMG, added, “Despite the bad weather, and with postal strikes ongoing, shoppers opted to head for the high street to browse for Christmas presents, with online sales growth continuing to slide across a number of categories.”
As Andy Sumpter, retail consultant EMEA for Sensormatic Solutions, explained, “Physical retail rallied in December, with store performance last month posting its best footfall counts compared to pre-pandemic figures all year.”
This was largely due to resilience from staff, as he added, “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.”
According to Tina McKenzie, policy chair at the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB), “The news that footfall partly recovered between 2021 and 2022 is positive for small businesses, and for high streets up and down the country.
“With the changes the pandemic brought to shopping habits, and with the seemingly inexorable rise of online shopping, high streets – and especially the independent businesses situated on them – have not had an easy couple of years of it.
“But there are still plenty of reasons for people to visit their local town centres, as evidenced by the footfall numbers. Where better than a bustling high street to pick up essentials, pop into a barber shop or nail bar, and meet with friends for a coffee or a meal?”
However, industry bodies have warned that this uplift is not the end of retailer’s worries. According to Andrew Goodacre, CEO of the British Independent Retail Association, “On the surface, the data on footfall sounds encouraging.
“However, we need to remember that during the festive period of 2021, we had restrictions in place due to the Omicron variant, so we are not looking at a true like-for-like comparison.
“We would have expected and hoped for 2022 footfall to be even better but I believe that strikes and the cost-of-living crisis deterred shoppers, especially in the large city centres.”
The outlook for indies in 2023
As Andrew told Speciality Food, “In 2023, we need the trends for footfall to remain positive, especially in the more local high streets and the smaller town centres which are the types of locations that have more indie retailers.
“I hope that the renaissance in local shopping continues into 2023, but local shops cannot take that for granted and have to continue to work hard to bring people into their business. The business owners have to concentrate on communications with members, and work with other local businesses to create reasons to come to the high street.”
Tina echoed these thoughts, as she added, “Inflation has eroded consumer spending power, and independent retailers should make their pitch to customers with that in mind, be that through spring sales, or emphasising their unique product offering or high service levels.
“Small firms wishing to make the most of higher footfall should think about whether their business is as welcoming and attractive to visit as possible. Even without the expense of a full refit, are there little details which could, for little outlay, make premises more of a draw? Is the range of products or services on offer tailored to current trends and local tastes?”
Government intervention needed
But retailers won’t be able to generate a successful 2023 by themselves, and government action is still required to boost growth.
As Andrew explained, “In terms of government support we need ongoing support with the very high energy bills impacting all retail businesses and focus on economic growth. We need to see steps taken to restore consumer confidence and to encourage higher levels of consumer expenditure.”
Tina agreed, “We’re calling on the government to help independent businesses who do so much to draw visitors to towns and communities, and who contribute hugely to the economy.
“We’d like business rates to be overhauled, so the rates bill paid by a small boutique on a popular street doesn’t far outweigh that paid by an online giant with an out-of-town warehouse. The threshold for full small business rate relief should be increased to £25,000 in England, from its current level of £12,500, to lift 200,000 small firms out of paying rates entirely, easing some of the financial pressure they are facing, and encouraging new ventures in areas which could do with a dash of regeneration.”