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Lockdown 3 had heavy impact on overall 2021 UK footfall

Tom Bottomley
24 January 2022

Lockdown 3 from 6 January to 12 April 2021 - off the back of a surge in COVID-19 infections - had a devastating impact on the overall UK footfall across all retail destinations for 2021, coming in at -31% lower than pre-pandemic 2019.

Despite that, it was a better overall performance when compared to 2020, which was -39.1% versus 2019, according to the annual retail review from retail data experts Springboard.

In 2021, retail parks remained the most resilient destination type at -11.8% compared with 2019, where as footfall in high streets and shopping centres was a much more substantial -36.7% and -37.9% lower than 2019 respectively.

While footfall recovered a little after Lockdown 3 was lifted, later in the year footfall in all three destination types was impacted by the increase in infections from both the Delta and the Omicron variants.

In July, at the peak of Delta infections, the gap from 2019 widened to -30.5% in high streets, from -27.2% in June, and to -30.2% in shopping centres, from -29.1% in June. The Omicron variant, which led to the government implementing Plan B guidance in December 2021 with advice to work from home if possible, had an even more significant impact on footfall, with the gap from 2019 widening in high streets to -22.2%, from -15.8% in November, and in shopping centres to -24.1%, from -22% in November.

In 2021, working from home for at least part of the week became firmly established and cemented the growth of “localism”, a trend identified in 2020. Springboard’s UK Consumer Survey identified that 57% of consumers worked at least part of the week at home in 2021, and that 24% of those consumers visited retail destinations less frequently. Inevitably that led to a proportionately greater reduction in footfall in large city centres than in more local high streets, as consumers were able to visit local destinations more easily from home during the working week.

The most extreme example of the increase in localism is the comparison of footfall performance in Central London versus outer London, as footfall in Outer London in 2021 was -27.3% lower than 2019 compared with -52% in Central London.

Manchester shoppers

Following on from Lockdown 3, in May to December 2021, in-store sales were -4.2% lower than the same eight-month period in 2019. However, there were some categories where sales were on par or higher than 2019, as jewellery and electrical/mobile phones saw sales rise from 2019 by +15.1%, and +3% respectively.

Even in health/beauty and fashion/accessories, store sales were only very slightly lower than in 2019, at -0.5% and -0.6% respectively.

In 2021, as a percentage of total retail sales, online sales averaged at 30%, increasing from 2020 when it averaged 27.2%. Online sales inevitably increased during Lockdown 3 to 35.7% between January and March, but fell back to 28.1% between April and December. Online sales for clothing and footwear peaked at 57.4% during Lockdown 3, however, that also meant that 42.6% of spending occurred in store, despite only essential retailers’ stores being able to trade.

Inevitably, the pandemic continued to impact consumer confidence. However, the consumer confidence index score as measured by GFK improved significantly in 2021 from 2020, shifting from an overall index score of -26 in 2020 to -15 in 2021.

The confidence of consumers increased significantly from May onwards, following the ending of Lockdown 3, and remained strong over the summer, declining as infections increased from September onwards and into the Christmas period.

Diane Wehrle, Insights Director at Springboard, said: “The experience of three lockdowns has taught us is that the need for human interaction and sensory satisfaction that we highlighted in the 2020 review really does drive visits and spend in stores and destinations. Following the end of Lockdown 3, the initial surge in visits to stores and destinations that we forecast in our 2020 review came to pass, with the gap in footfall from 2019 immediately halving and then continuing to strengthen, peaking during October half term week at -10.9% below 2019. In fact, even with Plan B measures in place and shoppers exhibiting significant caution in December, footfall in the week leading up to Christmas ended up just -13.8% below 2019.

“It’s clear that while retailing was impacted by COVID in 2021, the roll out of the vaccine programme has been a game changer. In our review of 2020, we were forecasting that we would need to break down 2021 into two key parts – pre-vaccine and post-vaccine - and largely this is what has happened. With the rapid roll out of the vaccine in 2021, bricks and mortar has weathered the storm of two new variants, with footfall strengthening every month until December when the government issued Plan B guidance to work from home which took the froth off of the expected uplift in footfall and sales during the crucial Christmas trading period.”

Springboard has identified a number of key trends that they forecast will play out in 2022. Most significantly is the maturity of the hybrid office/home working model which will result in a greater number of retail visits in the evening and at the weekend, as well as longer dwell times and an increase in the combination of shopping and dining, as the prospect of going out after a work day at home is more attractive.

While 2020 was typified by unprecedented change in retail brought about by the pandemic, and 2021 saw the start of retailers accommodating this change, Springboard says that 2022 will be “typified by the transition of retail to succeed in a COVID world”.

Retailers can expect the migration of spend online to continue throughout 2022, although as consumers feel more confident with regard to the risks associated with COVID-19, a proportion of this will shift back to stores. Therefore, the better integration of online and store retailing needs to be at the forefront of retailers’ minds.

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