Shoppers desert UK high streets

Tim Wallace
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BRITISH shops were abandoned in the run up to Christmas, new figures showed today, with hard-pressed consumers increasingly staying away from the high street, out of town retailers and shopping centres.

Online sales soared upwards to account for over 10 per cent of total sales, leaving traditional shops to bear the brunt of the country’s economic woes.

In the month before HMV, Jessops and Blockbuster all went into administration, total retail footfall plunged 1.2 per cent compared with the same month of 2011.

A combination of high inflation and low wage rises has been eating away at spending power, while fears over a triple dip recession also helped keep a cap on consumer spending.

High street shops saw a 0.5 per cent fall in visitor numbers, one per cent fewer shoppers came to out of town destinations and shopping centres received 2.8 per cent fewer trips, according to the figures from the British Retail Consortium (BRC) and Springboard.

And for the year as a whole the picture was even gloomier – high street footfall plunged 3.3 per cent.

“Weak spending power is keeping people away and compounding long-standing difficulties in many of our town centres. This month’s retail failures confirm the challenges are far from over,” said BRC boss Helen Dickinson.

Total consumer spending did rise by 1.8 per cent in December according to official figures, but the BRC added that shops saw non-food sales drop with only a boom in online retail pushing the headline number into positive figures.

The group’s data shows a 17.8 per cent jump in online sales in December as consumers continue to shift away from trips to the shops.

And if that picture was not tough enough already, the cost of retail crime jumped 15.6 per cent in the year.

Although fewer incidents are being reported to the police, the BRC calculates that retail crime cost £1.6bn in lost goods and damaged property.

Retailers were hit by 2m shoplifting incidents but only 12 per cent of those were reported, well down on the 47 per cent reported in 2011 which the BRC claims means “retailers’ confidence in police responses needs to be improved.”

As a result retailers have had to increase their spending on security and protecting staff – another tough cost to bear at a time when footfall is dropping and major businesses and household names are struggling to carry on trading at all.

But it is not just physical shops which are being targeted by criminals – the rise in online shopping has brought its own worries.

Identity fraud increased for more than 80 per cent of those surveyed, with e-crime now accounting for 37 per cent of the total cost of crime, the BRC said.

One solution to the high street’s multitude of woes would be to stop bashing the sector with ever increasing tax rises, the industry body suggested.

“The government should help erase the pain with a business rates freeze in April. Another steep rise can only lead to fewer jobs, less investment and more troubled high streets,” warned Dickinson.