Retail experts are reporting that the rapid spread of the Omicron variant of Covid-19 had an impact on retail footfall across the UK in the immediate weeks before Christmas last month.

Footfall and sales figures showed a promising if tentative return throughout November, but the rise of the new variant and the subsequent introduction of mild restrictions clearly had an effect on the public’s willingness to venture out to high streets and retail parks.

Covering the four weeks from 28 November 2021 to 1 January 2022, data from BRC-Sensormatic IQ showed a disappointing decrease in footfall in December.

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Total UK footfall decreased by 18.6% in December by comparison to December 2019, with a 2.9 percentage point decrease from October. This is below the three-month average decline of 16.4%.

This was, however, ahead of France (-23.5%), Spain (-25.2%), Italy (-37.0%) and Germany (-51.5%) in December (Yo2Y).

For the whole of 2021, total UK footfall was -33.2% (Yo2Y) below pre-pandemic levels, however this was up 19.3% (YoY) on 2020.

Helen Dickinson, chief-executive of British Retail Consortium, said: “Much of the progress made over the last four months was wiped out in December as surging Omicron cases and new work-from-home advice deterred many from shopping in-store, particularly in towns and city centres.

“As case numbers rose precipitously, many people chose to limit social mixing in the run up to Christmas and shop less frequently.

“Nevertheless, while UK footfall saw a moderate decline compared to previous months, it remained above levels of other major European economies, as the country avoided some of the more severe restrictions implemented elsewhere.

“December footfall capped a challenging year for brick-and-mortar stores, which saw footfall down one-third on pre-pandemic levels, though this was a significant improvement on 2020.

“With Christmas out the way, time will tell if shoppers return to their local high streets to embrace January sales and the arrival of spring collections. Still, retailers may have to work twice as hard to tempt many consumers back into the cold this January.”

Andy Sumpter, retail consultant EMEA for Sensormatic Solutions, commented:

“While there weren’t any formal government restrictions, aside from the Plan B mask-wearing mandate, placed on retailers in December, concerns about the rapid spread of Omicron dealt a blow to shopper confidence, as consumers self-policed social contacts and limited shopping trips in a bid to save their own Christmases.

“But this will have done little to save the Christmases of retail businesses, effectively stalling the high street’s recovery in the run up to their most important trading period, with shopper counts across all retail settings receding to the levels seen in August, wiping away the slow but steady footfall recovery and gains we had seen up until the start of November.”

“With the booster vaccination programme being delivered at pace and some glimmers of hope that the Omicron wave maybe plateauing in some regions, retailers will be hoping that consumers’ cautious optimism returns, and with that a new year’s resolve to continue to support local high streets and bricks-and-mortar stores.”