Is the high street bouncing back?

by | Dec 16, 2021

“Let’s wait and see how things shake out” – that’s been the mantra for the past year or so as the COVID-19 support schemes expired and social distancing restrictions were lifted.

With a full quarter of trading under our belts, and new stats to explore, how are shops on high streets like Wimborne’s doing? And what can we expect in terms of footfall and trade in the run-up to Christmas?

How hard were high streets hit in 2020?

A drop in high street footfall was nothing new when the pandemic hit – it already fell by 4% between 2016 and 2019 as new consumer trends developed, especially with online shopping.

Nevertheless, this now seems insignificant to what high streets saw on 28 March 2020, when footfall crashed by a staggering 89.9%.

As time went on, cities all over the UK, devoid of students, workers and tourists, saw footfall drop by an average of 75.9% between 1 March and 30 June 2020.

Surprisingly, footfall in district centres fell by just 34.5% over the same period. With stringent lockdown measures and unavailability of some goods, the High Street Task Force (HSTF), commissioned by the Government in 2019, suggested that smaller, local shopping areas were “rediscovered through COVID-19”, as consumers had to sometimes look elsewhere for essential retail.

No doubt other consumers wanted to support their local businesses and preserve the heart of their community, too.

Funding from councils, meanwhile, made sure local businesses didn’t completely collapse.

When the summer hit and lockdown measures relaxed, footfall improved – with 67% of holiday and tourist towns recovering their visitors.

However, ‘regular’ towns didn’t see any sort of comparable recovery, and data from the Local Government Association revealed average high street footfall fell 45% by November 2020, when the UK entered its second lockdown.

In its most recent footfall report, the HSTF said:

“To give a sense of the size of this change during 2020, a typical English regional city had approximately 10 million fewer people on its streets.”

Without enough trade to survive, over 11,000 chain outlets and independent retail, restaurant and leisure premises closed their doors in England, Wales and Scotland in 2020.

Is the high street bouncing back?

When non-essential retail reopened on 15 June 2020, footfall increased by 62.9% in that first week. While impressive, this pales in comparison to the 112.9% increase in footfall during the week that non-essential retail reopened on 12 April 2021.

The difference between the two figures likely comes from a boost in consumer confidence afforded by the vaccination programme in 2021, according to the HSTF.

Footfall increased by a further 7% following the reopening of hospitality and the relaxation of other social restrictions in July 2021, but only after a larger decline overall.

With that in mind, it looks like that while high streets are bouncing back, there’s a way to go. Footfall on 13 September 2021 – the latest date the HSTF has published data for – was down 25.1% compared to the same day in 2019.

Again, holiday towns are faring better, with footfall 13.3% lower in September 2021 compared to 2019, while multifunctional towns received 28.1% less.

But why are there still so few people on our high streets compared to before the pandemic?

First, with 85% of employees wanting a hybrid approach to work, remote working remains more popular than ever, sucking people away from urban areas, while the largest proportion of UK shoppers (40%) are only “fairly comfortable” with shopping in person.

Prospects for high streets for Christmas

In October this year, Springboard – an organisation dedicated to increasing retail footfall – forecast that from 21 November 2021 to 4 January 2022, footfall across all UK retail destinations will average 17% lower than the same period in 2019.

However, part of their prediction was based on an assumption that Black Friday would increase footfall by 7.9% and 6.5% in the weeks starting on 21 November and 28 November respectively.

That didn’t happen.

In fact, the high street suffered its first-ever decline in footfall for a Black Friday. Instead, consumers preferred shopping centres and retail parks – with visits in these places up by 6.5% and 4.9%, respectively.

It’s unclear, therefore, how high streets will fare this Christmas, especially with 52% of Christmas shoppers having begun their spending earlier than usual.

And Springboard’s original prediction was made before the Omicron variant sparked a resurgence in COVID-19 cases, severely denting consumer confidence in the process. As a result, some hospitality firms are braced for a 40% dip in profits during this key trading period.

But what’s certain for 2022 is how local businesses can improve their chances not just to survive, but thrive.

For instance, the recovery loan scheme has been extended until June 2022, while eligible retail, hospitality and leisure businesses will qualify for a 50% discount of business rates in 2022/23, up to a cap of £110,000 per business.

And they have something that online retailers will never have – a unique in-person experience and a swathe of support among the public who seemingly want to support their local communities.

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