UK footfall still weak in January says Springboard, vacancy rate rises

Retailers might be able to take some comfort from the fact that footfall to UK stores fell at a slower rate last month than it had a year earlier (0.7% compared to 1.6%), but with January 2019’s figure being the 14th consecutive monthly decline, it was hardly a stellar month.


Shoppers were thin on the ground last month and the number of occupied stores fell too


And given that the timing of school holidays meant kids went back to school slightly later in the month, thus boosting footfall artificially, that was even more reason not to be too cheerful about the easing of the rate of decline.

The four weeks from December 30 to January 26 also benefited from some retailers focusing their discount events within their physical stores during January, specialist tracking firm Springboard said Monday.

Footfall to high streets dropped 0.7%, compared to 1.9% a year ago and 2.2% for the three-month average. Retail parks were down only 0.3% but that compared poorly to the year ago figure (a 0.9% increase), although at least it was better than the -1.3% three-month average. And once again, shopping centres suffered most, down 0.9%, but better than the 3.1% drop in January 2018 and also beating the three-month average of -2.8%.

But a decline is a decline, however small and coming along with a national town centre vacancy rate of 9.9% (up from 9.6% three months earlier and 8.9% a year ago), it was further evidence of the challenging times for UK retailers at present.

It’s clear that the slowing decline was a result of heavy discounts that lured shoppers in the opening week of January, and is therefore more a refection of a weak autumn/winter season than of any 2019 retail strength.

Diane Wehrle, Springboard Marketing and Insights Director, said: “We should not be persuaded that the drop in footfall in January of just 0.7% suggests trading conditions have stabilised. On closer interrogation, the clear fact is that all of this improvement emanates from the first week when footfall rose by 2.6% while dropping by an average of 2.1% over the three subsequent weeks.”

And it seems that even in that first week, the uplift was largely driven by a single day. New Year’s Eve (Monday December 31) showed a 151% uplift. But given that the equivalent Monday in the previous year was actually New Year’s Day, when store opening hours were more limited and the weather was poor, the rise can’t be taken as a sign of a sudden urge to shop on a Monday.

And Wehrle also said that the vacancy rate “reflected the ongoing challenges faced by retailers and recent store closures.”

So having demolished the slight comfort that retailers could take from the lower decline last month, was there any true crumb of comfort remaining in the report? 

Well, even though footfall in overall terms is still sliding, daytime footfall – which accounts for around 70% of total volume – rose by 0.6% in January, driven by a greater increase of 5.4% in the first week, with a lesser average drop of just 1.1% between the second and fourth weeks. It’s not much, but it’s something to focus on.

British Retail Consortium CEO Helen Dickinson said:  “The data reflects the underlying pressures which continue to challenge shops up and down the country. Retail is undergoing a seismic shift, with technology changing the way we shop. Consumers are making fewer visits to physical stores, choosing to research and pay for a greater proportion of their purchases online. This requires a reinvention of retail, with outlets investing in their physical space to encourage a more experience-led approach to shopping.”

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