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Britons shy away from Boxing Day sales amid concern over Omicron variant | Retail industry


British consumers have largely stayed away from the traditional Boxing Day sales amid concern over the Omicron Covid variant, with visits to high streets, shopping centres and retail parks down more than 45% on pre-pandemic levels, according to industry figures.

Fears over the virus, as well as several key retailers including John Lewis, Marks & Spencer and Next deciding to keep their stores closed, and the traditional bumper shopping day falling on a Sunday this year, all put a dampener on sales.

By lunchtime on Sunday, numbers were only up just over a quarter on last year, when UK high streets were in lockdown, according to the latest data from shopping tracking group Springboard.

“A major reason for the significantly lower footfall compared with 2019 will be due to consumers’ ongoing nervousness about the Covid infection rate,” said Diane Wehrle, insights director at Springboard, who said the figures indicated Boxing Day was unlikely to have given retailers the hoped for post-Christmas boost.

“This will have been compounded by the fact that a few multiple retailers opted not to open today, which will have deterred some shoppers. In addition, Sunday generally has the lowest footfall on any day in the week, so a comparison with 2019 when Boxing Day fell on a Thursday will always have meant that footfall would be lower than two years ago.”

Despite busier scenes on some high streets across the UK, including lengthy queues outside shops in central Manchester, Liverpool, and outside Selfridges on Oxford Street in London, experts said high street footfall was down on pre-pandemic levels.

Covid restrictions as well as concern over Omicron put off consumers from going to physical shops, according to a poll of 2,000 shoppers on behalf of Barclaycard. The credit card operator said that as many as 40% would instead go online to avoid any queues and crowded areas.

Wehrle said the mild weather and lack of a lockdown had not enticed shoppers to head out as much as businesses might have hoped.

Central London was the hardest hit destination, with visitor numbers down 67% on pre-Covid levels in 2019 despite a major bounceback from last year when stores were forced to close – with numbers more than doubling. Regional cities excluding London also had a tough time, with numbers down nearly 60% on 2019 and just over 6% on last year. Market towns and outer London fared best as shoppers chose to stay close to home.

People walk along a busy shopping street in the traditional Boxing Day sales in Liverpool, Britain, on 26 December 2021.
It wasn’t gloom everywhere. Cities such as Liverpool, pictured, reported lengthy queues outside shops. Photograph: Phil Noble/Reuters

The latest indicator of difficulties for retailers comes after shoppers were predicted to spend £3.9bn in stores and online on Boxing Day, as much as 10% less than before the pandemic and 1% lower than last year, according to analysis by GlobalData for the shopping deals website Vouchercodes.

Spending in physical stores alone is expected to fall by 23% compared with 2019 as many shoppers avoid high streets, shopping centres and retail parks amid fears over the Omicron variant.

Changing shopping habits were not expected to spell all good news for online specialists either. Over £1.4bn is expected to be spent online on Boxing Day, almost 18% less than last year, but just over a quarter up on 2019, before the pandemic, according to GlobalData.

Despite the gloomy predictions, at least one shopping centre said it had been busy for the start of the post-Christmas sales.

“Going shopping on Boxing Day is a yearly tradition for many with people looking to pick up some great deals from one of our many brands and enjoy a day out of the house,” a spokesperson for the Trafford Centre in Greater Manchester said.

“Although Boxing Day this year falls on a Sunday we’ve had a steady stream of visitors to Trafford Centre regardless of the shorter trading hours. We expect to see plenty of interest in the sales period throughout the week ahead, with Monday 27 December being a priority for retailer promotions.”

Meanwhile Barclaycard predicted spending was likely to be up on last year and even 2019. Its survey found consumers planned to spend an average of £247 in the post-Christmas sales this year, up £85 compared with 2020 and up £61 compared with 2019.



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