The number of people visiting shops increased by almost 200% last week in England as non-essential retailers were allowed to open their doors to consumers for the first time since early January as Covid restrictions were relaxed.
Industry figures from the British Retail Consortium and separate data from Springboard, a research provider, revealed a sharp rise in footfall on high streets and at retail parks and shopping centres across the country.
Taken from sensors at the doors of thousands of retail stores, footfall jumped by 195.5% in England on the six days to Saturday 17 April compared with the week before. The biggest gains were recorded in cities such as Portsmouth, where footfall was up more than 100%, and Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool and Birmingham – all up more than 300%.
Retailers in England deemed non-essential were forced to shut during the third national lockdown, announced on 4 January. They were allowed to reopen, albeit with safety precautions remaining, on 12 April.
Footfall also rose by 167.6% from a week ago in Wales, where non-essential shops were also allowed to reopen on 12 April. Scotland is to reopen shops on 26 April and Northern Ireland by 30 April.
Despite large numbers of people returning to the shops, footfall still remained down compared with the same week in 2019. Reflecting the continued fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, footfall was still 22.6% down in England and 25.3% in Wales. However, the strength of the bounceback nevertheless took some analysts by surprise. The increase in visitor numbers was largest on the first day of the reopening, 12 April.
Diane Wehrle, Springboard’s insights director, said: “The first week of reopening delivered an outstanding performance for UK retail destinations and stores, with an increase in footfall from the week before that was virtually double our forecast.
“These results provide concrete evidence of the desire of shoppers to return to bricks and mortar stores and destinations.”
The separate figures from Springboard showed retail footfall rose by 88% in the week to Saturday compared with the previous week. Shopping centre footfall more than doubled, with visitor numbers up by 127%. Visitor numbers to high street locations were up by 93%. Even retail parks – usually home to supermarkets, which have remained open throughout the pandemic – enjoyed a boost in visits, which were up by a third.
However, analysts will now focus on whether the increase in retail activity will endure. Footfall could increase further next month when the government plans to allow indoor hospitality, such as for pubs and restaurants, to reopen. The next stage of reopening the economy will not start before 17 May despite the pleas and even legal action of some hospitality bosses. After 21 June the government plans to remove all restrictions on mixing.
“The key issue for retail destinations will be whether this momentum can be sustained,” Wehrle said. “From our evidence of the last two lockdowns, we are expecting footfall to continue to increase over the next few weeks, albeit at a lesser rate.”
Beyond the summer, economists are concerned about the end of the government’s furlough scheme, which was still supporting the wages of 4.7 million people at the end of February, according to government data. Some economists believe the end of the scheme in September could cause unemployment to increase.
However, in the shorter term there are signs of pent-up demand from a rise in household savings, predominantly among higher earners who have managed to save money while working from home. Retail spending should cause UK GDP growth to accelerate in April, according to Martin Beck, an economist at Oxford Economics, a consultancy.
Helen Dickinson, the chief executive of the BRC, said: “With case numbers continuing to drop, retailers hope that confidence will return to high streets, shopping centres and retail parks, and encourage UK consumers to release some of the £160bn saved up during this pandemic. By unlocking consumer savings, UK retail has a key role to play in the wider economic recovery.”