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Data Paints Mixed Picture of Britain’s Retail Recovery

Two weeks after reopening, British retail faces an uphill recovery battle.

Foot traffic to the retail stores across the U.K. dipped 3.4 percent week-over-week for the week beginning April 18, according to Springboard, a British data firm. The drop, it added, grows to 19.9 percent versus pre-Covid levels, though the tally compares favorably to the previous 25 percent peak at the close of August.

Springboard said foot traffic tumbled 10.7 percent from Monday through Friday, before rising 0.9 percent on Saturday, indicating the work-from-home lifestyle’s “significant impact” on retail footfall.

“This is highlighted by the fact that the average decline in footfall between Monday and Friday in shopping centers of 17.8 percent was more than double that of [a decline of] 8.6 percent in high streets, many of which are smaller and more local and therefore easier to access during the working week,” it said, noting that footfall at retail parks was up 2 percent above 2019 levels, illustrating the destination’s enduring popularity with shoppers.

Diane Wehrle, Springboard’s insights director, described the new data as a positive development for brick-and-mortar retailers, despite the slight decline from the prior week.

Nonessential retailers’ reopening week beginning on April 11 seemed to benefit from the afterglow of the Easter holiday, when many families were able to use the break to visit stores.

“It is therefore not surprising that footfall dipped last week from the week before, as children went back at school and many people continue to work from home making stores less accessible over the working week; evidenced by the fact that the drop in footfall occurred between Monday and Friday, while on Saturday it continued to rise,” Wehrle said.

Footfall in Scotland last week was down 50.9 percent from 2019 as nonessential retailers remained closed awaiting reopening on Monday. And in Northern Ireland, which was down 49.9 percent, retailers selling goods beyond the essentials won’t reopen until the end of the month.

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Meanwhile, retail sales data offers a mixed picture for different ends of the sector.

The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) on Tuesday said retail sales volume in April surpassed seasonally typically results for the first time this year and to the “greatest extent since June 2018,” though the good news largely left apparel and footwear behind.

Sales are expected to “remain above seasonal norms in the year to May,” according to CBI’s latest monthly Distributive Trades Survey, which aggregates input from 124 businesses including 60 retailers.

But while that’s true for hardware and furniture and carpet sellers, apparel and footwear sales remained well below the seasonal average. Future sales volumes growth is expected to slow in May, with digital sales outpacing the average. Retailers’ inventory orders were essentially unchanged to April but are expected to dip slightly in the year to May.

“Springtime has brought some relief to the retail sector, with non-essential stores in England and Wales re-opening earlier this month, and retailers in Scotland and Northern Ireland following suit in the final week of April,” Ben Jones, CBI’s principal economist, said. “Despite progress along the roadmap, the impact of Covid-19 restrictions are still biting hard. The improvement in retail sales this month was driven by sectors that have performed relatively well during the pandemic, with little immediate rebound expected for more embattled sectors such as clothing, footwear and department stores.”

Jones said retailers also continue to face inventory management and supply chain challenges, largely attributable to trade disruption, evolving consumer behavior and uncertainty over how long social distancing remains in place.