Government must do more to get public back into shops, say retailers

Retailers have told Boris Johnson that his government must do more to persuade the public that it is safe to travel to work and shop or risk needless job losses and store closures, as data showed city centres suffering from a lack of office workers.

The British Retail Consortium said its monthly survey of footfall showed that empty office blocks were leaving city centres bare of potential customers even though lockdown restrictions had been gradually eased.

Despite the boost provided by the Treasury’s ‘eat out to help out’ scheme, the number of shoppers was more than a third lower in August than in the same month of 2019, the BRC said.

The BRC said deserted workplaces and difficulty in persuading shoppers that they would be safe from Covid-19 in shops had taken a heavy toll on city centres.

London, with its high number of commuters and the reliance of shoppers on public transport, had been the hardest hit city in the UK, the BRC said, with footfall down by more than 45%.

Bristol was the least affected city, registering a footfall decline of 27.5%. It was followed by Liverpool, Cardiff, Belfast and Nottingham. Northern Ireland was the region with the smallest drop in footfall (13%).

There was some evidence that eat out to help out and demand for new school uniforms led to an increase in footfall in the final week of the month, the BRC said, but overall the increase from July was just 7.3 percentage points.

The BRC survey painted a gloomier picture than the official data, which showed that the boost provided by online shopping meant retail sales in July rose above their pre-crisis level.

Helen Dickinson, the BRC’s chief executive, said: “Footfall remained well below normal levels in August. In-store discounting and demand for school wear helped lure some customers back to the shops, but with many office blocks still empty and much of the public avoiding public transport, footfall is not returning to towns and city centres and this is having a devastating effect on the local economies in these areas.

“While many businesses have been investing in making workplaces safer, we are unlikely to see significant growth in footfall while government advice remains to ‘work from home if you can’. Unless this changes, more should be done to encourage people to travel and reassure them that public transport is safe. Government should also recognise that, while footfall is so low, many businesses will not be able to manage their fixed costs – rent & business rates in particular – and unnecessary job losses and store closures will follow.”

The BRC said high streets – where footfall was down almost 42% year on year – were the worst affected of the three types of shopping outlets that it monitored. Shopping centres were down by more than 37%, while the least affected part of the sector was retail parks, where the large open spaces and the higher number of supermarkets limited the annual fall in footfall to 11%.

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