UK April footfall gets tourist and leisure boost but times are still tough
The headline news for UK retail footfall looks to have been quite good in April. New figures from specialist tracker Springboard showed an overall rise of 1.6% year-on-year, spread fairly evenly across retail destinations.
But dig a bit deeper and the news wasn’t so good with marked ups and downs and patches of both strength and weakness. And the conclusion from all of this? If you operate a store in a tourist destination, or if you stay open in the evening, you’re in a good position. But everyone else… well you're having to battle the siren call of online shopping in the fight for consumer attention and it’s a battle you have to be very nimble to win.
So let’s look at the headline numbers. Footfall across all retail destinations rose 1.6% compared to April 2016. High streets were up 2.3%, retail parks up 2.7% and although shopping centres fell, the dip was only 0.6%.
But with Easter falling in April this year compared to March a year ago, the overall Easter-specific boost was 1.6% - that’s 1.6% extra traffic that wouldn’t have happened in a ‘normal’ month. And that boost benefitted the first half of the month disproportionately. It meant footfall was up 5% in the first half but dropped 6.4% in the last two weeks.
It was noteworthy that the continuing weak pound helped stores in tourist areas to see more visitor traffic. London’s West End saw footfall 2.7% higher. But coastal towns (up 5.1%) and historic towns (up 7.9%) also saw more people in their stores. And they weren’t only international tourists as the higher cost of European holidays seemed to encourage UK shoppers to take Easter ‘staycations’.
Diane Wehrle, Springboard’s insights director, said that another result of all this extra leisure-focused shopping was that high street footfall rose 1.9% during regular retail trading hours but over 3% after 17:00, further underlining the importance of mall and retail park owners encouraging more dining and entertainment tenants to sign up.
Another point to note is that while the retail vacancy rate improved ever-so-slightly (to 9.3% from 9.4%), the strength of London shopping skewed this figure. In fact, there more vacancies in all areas apart from London, the East and the North & Yorkshire. Wehrle added: “The vacancy rate is perhaps a portent of things to come, inflationary pressures are likely to increase, which could suppress customer behaviour and therefore occupier demand, notwithstanding the emergence of new occupiers who initially tend to focus on London.”
What does it all mean? Essentially, times are tough. Physical retail is continuing to struggle against the strength of online shopping in the UK. And however buoyant store chains like Superdry, Quiz and Ted Baker might be, the experience of Next, Bonmarche, Warehouse and even Jaeger is more typical.
It looks like London will retain its appeal, as long as international brand continue to open flagships there and the pound stays enticingly weak. But elsewhere, s we head towards summer, the Uk retail sector could actually be getting ready for a big chill.
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