High streets in smaller towns feel benefit as shoppers and workers stay away from major urban areas
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Last modified on Wed 22 Dec 2021 13.54 EST
The busy streets of central London are normally no place for the faint-hearted in the run-up to Christmas. Shoppers jostle with increasing urgency to secure last-minute gifts while revellers spill out from bars and restaurants to celebrate their final days in the office.
But this is far from a normal Christmas. Shoppers and tourists have stayed away from the capital in large numbers, data – and haunting pictures – reveal.
Images of near-empty streets in citiessuch as Manchester and Edinburgh tell a tale of shoppers and tourists alike staying away from city centres over fears about the spread of the Omicron coronavirus variant and a mass return to working from home. Andrew Lloyd Webber has closed Cinderella until next year, and productions of Hamilton and The Lion King have been pulled.
Data from the retail intelligence firm Springboard on Wednesday showed a 17.3% drop in footfall in central London compared with the same day last week, and regional cities have recorded a 3.4% drop. A central London “back-to-office benchmark”, which measures only areas in close proximity to offices, shows footfall down 21.8%.
“In a week where you would have normally expected more people, figures are going down,” said Springboard’s insight director, Diane Wehrle. “People are heeding plan B and staying away from the office. Restaurants are closing early. London isn’t deserted exactly, but it is certainly a lot quieter than usual.”
Things are likely to be worse for hospitality businesses than for shops, she said. Shops potentially experience a higher “conversion rate” with people ready to spend money saved during lockdowns rather than just browse. “This could definitely make it even worse for cafes and pubs, as visitors who were intending to go into high streets to eat and drink may well choose to do that elsewhere.”
Footfall in London’s West End was down 27% on pre-pandemic levels on Tuesday, sparking further criticism that the chancellor is not doing enough to help hospitality. Rishi Sunak announced a £1bn bailout package on Tuesday consisting of business grants and help with sick pay, but he ruled out bringing back furlough for the hardest hit firms.
Michael Kill, the head of the Night Time Industries Association, said the sector was facing its biggest challenge since the start of the pandemic but was not getting the help it desperately needed.
“We’re being marshalled by a government which has no real understanding of proportionate support or the real cost implications, or even the sensitivities around the vital part the festive period plays in the survival of our sector,” he said.
Pictures of closed restaurants and quiet shops in large city centres are, however, only part of the story. Local high streets have not been hit as hard. Springboard data shows that footfall is up 0.1% in UK market towns, and outdoor retail parks with high street stores recorded a rise of 22.6% on the same day last week.
“There are parts of central London that feel like a ghost town,” said Patrick O’Brien, the UK research director at GlobalData Retail. “Closer to home it’s a different picture, but that is only relative to the worse picture in city centres. While for many retailers this might be a better Christmas than last year, it’s not a useful comparison. This will still be a very difficult Christmas for many.”
Darker clouds were likely to be on the horizon for shops, he said: “The truth is, the longer restrictions – either voluntary or imposed – last, the more ingrained consumer behaviour such as the move online becomes.”
In Hertford, a market town where many workers normally commute to London, a lot of people have been staying closer to home and supporting local businesses, said Muslum Kurnaz, the manager of Hertford Organic.
“Business is really picking up this week. I think a lot of people don’t want to go into big supermarkets,” he said. “Lots of people work in London here, but I think they want to support local businesses this year. Chocolate sales have really gone up.”
Will Walton and his wife Yellie, who own Love Flowers and The Shop in the town, said more customers from outer London suburbs had decided to drive north rather than take the tube into town.
He also feels shoppers are ready to spend money despite an increase in the wholesale cost of flowers. A recent Christmas flower order from a Premier League footballer – he won’t say which one – resulted in a £3,500 sale.
“We’ve met our targets for Christmas this year, so we’re just really happy about that,” he said. “Our regulars are really fantastic and we’re just trying to make sure they get everything they need. We can only do our best.”
If there was a silver lining for retailers from the coronavirus pandemic, it could be found on smaller high streets and out-of-town retail parks, said Wehrle. “I hesitate to say there is an upside, but if there is upside, it is that it might actually have saved some high streets who were facing really challenging times.”
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