UK retail footfall: good news and bad for high streets

springboard 3

Picture courtesy Springboard

OK, first the apology – this report has some pretty dry figures so don’t expect sexy factoids. Second the excuse – if we really want to see what’s happening in retail, then we need to look at such figures. And as the Christmas season is always a game-changer for the sector, then the figures become even more important, so you’ll have to put up with it.

Back to the point of the story. It was the final shopping week of the holiday season and how did UK retail destinations do? Good in parts, it seems.

Let’s looks at the numbers. Overall in the final holiday shopping week, year-on-year footfall to high streets, retail parks and shopping centres fell. But it only fell by a tiny 0.3% and even managed to rise 2.7% on New Year’s Day. So far, so OK.

Digging deeper, December 29 was a key day. Apparently, it’s now known as ‘take back Tuesday’ (people do love giving names to all these shopping days but in this case it’s probably justified as it’s the day everyone returns/exchanges their unwanted Christmas gifts). The day saw a 5.1% year-on-year footfall rise to UK high streets specifically. Did that rise mean increased spending? Not if people were just returning gifts!

There was another high street peak on Saturday January 2 (I don’t think that day has a special name though). Footfall was up an astonishing 9.7%, despite the miserably wet weather.

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Picture courtesy Springboard

Now for the ‘but’

But… (yes, there’s always a ‘but’), while some days were good, overall footfall to high streets from Monday December 28 through to Friday January 1 dropped 3%. And footfall was down 2.6% on New Year’s Day. Ouch.

It’s a completely different picture from last year when high street footfall from the Monday to Friday after Christmas was up 6.2% and surged 14.2% on New Year’s Day.

So while high streets may have been the destination of choice on Saturday it looks like they lost out to retail parks and shopping centres overall. Not that this is a surprise as out-of-town parks and covered malls consistently outperformed high streets throughout 2015.

High street rivals

Here’s some more figures… On Saturday as high street traffic peaked, retail park traffic slumbered with just a 0.3% rise, which is a bit of a shock. Shopping centres did better, rising 4.8%, perhaps aided by their ability to shelter shoppers from the rain.

But retail parks were generally strong and In the shopping week as a whole, they rose 3.6% (and as much 7.8% on New Year’s Day) while shopping centres rose 1.8% (or 9.2% on New Year’s Day).

spingboard shoppers

Picture courtesy Springboard

And the conclusion is?

So what does it all mean long term? One thing is clear – high street visitor traffic is continuing its on-going decline. And we can’t simply dismiss this as the impact of more shoppers going online. The fact is that retail parks and shopping centres are still managing to boost their visitor numbers and high streets seem unable to hit back, however many government initiatives are launched.

Diane Wehrle, Insights and Marketing Director at Springboard said it was always going to be a challenge for high streets that are challenged by the “convenience, choice and customer service shoppers can find in out of town retail parks and shopping centres.”

Can they do anything about it? My local high street has seen something of a revival recently since the council lifted parking restrictions. The result has been a general feeling that jumping in the car to nip down there is a worthwhile exercise, rather than one fraught with parking problems. And there doesn’t appear to have been a downside of increased traffic causing obstructions so it feels like a win-win.

That said, my local high street (Sidcup) just like many others, suffers from its mix of stores – it’s ok if you’re filling a prescription, buying a sandwich or visiting the bank, but beyond that it’s limited. There are high streets near me with more stores (Lewisham, Bromley, Eltham) but their ‘success’ seems to have hastened the decline of smaller high streets even more.

It’s so different from the high streets of years-gone-by that really were the focal point for most shopping trips. A couple of years ago, one of the stores on my local high street was being refurbished and the workmen pulled down some boards to reveal a classic 1970s fashion illustration underneath. The site had obviously been a dress shop, but the thought of a fashion store on that high street today seems ludicrous.

And that’s the problem – what the figures in this report show above all is that (with occasional exceptions), shoppers are going where the greatest concentration of alluring stores happens to be – and that’s not the high street.


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