The year that was 2020 significantly altered the retail industry, as doors of non-essential retailers were forced to close for a total of 18 weeks.

Today, retail expert Springboard reveals the dramatic impact of the pandemic on UK retail locations as latest data indicates footfall was -39.1% lower than in 2019 with only a marginal difference between the individual UK nations.

Latest data reveals that retail footfall plummeted to -75.1% in the week after the nation went into lockdown on 23 March 2020, a level never previously recorded by Springboard, as individuals adapted to a new way of living, working and shopping.

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Six key periods that defined the retail landscape in 2020

Springboard has identified six key time periods in 2020, defined by Covid-19: pre Covid-19, Lockdown 1, retail and hospitality reopening, Lockdown 2, tiered reopening and Tier 4/Lockdown 3.

Pre-Covid-19 (up to mid-March), footfall declined by -2.6%, but from then on the decline in footfall was of an unprecedented magnitude, ranging from between -35% and -71.4%.

The biggest drop in footfall was seen in week 16 (wb 16th April 2020), during lockdown 1, with the largest uplift seen in week 25 (wb 14th June 2020) when non-essential retail stores opened in England.

Retail parks clear 2020 winners

Of the three destination types, it was retail parks who were the most resilient in retaining shoppers throughout 2020, with an overall drop in footfall of -23% in comparison to shopping centres -41.9% and high streets -45.2%.

Springboard identified that retail parks are by nature, perfectly set up to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic; not only do the majority have the advantage of food stores being located there, but they are easy to access by car, so rely little on public transport, car parking is free, plentiful and outdoors and stores are large which made social distancing far easier to achieve.

Rise of localism

As the nation started to work from home from March onwards and social distancing and the message to ‘stay local’ became a norm, local high streets got a new lease of life.

Of the high streets across the UK, it was the market towns, coastal towns and historic towns that were far more resilient in terms of retaining shoppers compared to regional cities who recorded drops up to 58% in comparison to market towns -36.6%, coastal towns -37.4% and historic towns -44.2%.

The UK’s local high streets are by geography easier to reach on foot from home so can be accessed during the working day and are generally seen to be less congested than larger locations.

In addition, in times of uncertainty, such as a pandemic, consumers felt a loyalty towards their local independent businesses and a desire to support them economically.

However, this rise in localism was at the expense of the beating heart of the UK’s economy; Central London was the hardest hit of town or single location with a drop in footfall from 2019 of -58.7%.

This is due to the loss of not only the working population who stayed local, but also the immediate drop in domestic visitors and overseas tourists.

Brick-and-mortar vs online

The overall loss of footfall across the UK unsurprisingly translated into a huge decline in sales in bricks and mortar stores of -20% in 2020 compared with a decline of just -3% in 2019.

With bricks and mortar non-essential retailers closed, online spending increased significantly; from representing 19.1% of total retail spending in 2019 online spending as a whole rose to 27.4% of total retail spending in 2020.

With more shoppers having been introduced to online shopping, Springboard forecasted that post-Covid, this will rebase at a higher level than before the global pandemic, as a proportion of those online shoppers who were previously ‘store only’ shoppers are likely to continue to use this channel for at least some purchases.

Post-pandemic optimism for retail locations

As we look to the post-Covid-19 era, prospects for bricks and mortar stores and retail destinations should not be written off.

Post-lockdown 1 and 2, Springboard data highlighted consumers need for human experience and interaction in retail as footfall rose by +40.3% in the first week following the easing of restrictions of both Lockdown 1 and Lockdown 2.

The longer consumers are subject to restrictions the greater the desire for this will be, therefore Springboard forecasted that the retail industry will bounce back and it is those who have adapted to the post-covid era, which will succeed in the long term in an industry which is continuing to evolve at speed.

Diane Wehrle, insights director at Springboard, commented: “To use the word ‘unprecedented’ truly underplays the impact that Covid-19 has had on the retail industry as businesses large and small fought for survival.

“However, as the vaccine is successfully rolled out across the UK in 2021, this offers hope for retailers in the second half of the year, albeit with social distancing measures still in place.

“If Covid-19 has taught us anything, it is the need we all have for human interaction and sensory satisfaction, and this is likely to drive visits and spend in stores and destinations.

“What is likely to continue to change in 2021 is the types of destinations that consumers visit and the frequency and when they do so, and much of this change will be driven by the shift to home working.”