Hopes for a Christmas that would see high streets near pre-pandemic levels of trade were dashed last month as Covid fears discouraged shoppers.
While England enjoyed a festive period free of restrictions on social gatherings once more, high streets marked a footfall decline of 23.1 per cent last month, compared to 2019. This was 3.5 percentage points below November’s rate and below the three month average decline of 20.7 per cent.
At the end of last year, the government instructed office workers to work from home while revellers cancelled plans in the weeks leading up to Christmas, in a bid to dodge Covid’s Omicron variant.
The capital city’s retail destinations were hit particularly hard, marking a 28.1 per cent drop in footfall compared to the same period in 2019.
Total UK footfall decreased by 18.6 per cent in December, compared to the Christmas before the pandemic hit.
Helen Dickinson OBE, chief executive of British Retail Consortium, said much of the bricks-and-mortar industry’s pandemic recovery progress was “wiped out” in December.
“As case numbers rose precipitously, many people chose to limit social mixing in the run up to Christmas and shop less frequently,” she said.
Businesses face having to “work twice as hard” to lure customers away from online retailers this month, Dickinson added.
Retailers did see sales buoyed in the absence of tougher Covid restrictions, compared to last year, according to BDO’s high street sales tracker.
Total like-for-like sales shot up 60.9 per cent in the final week of December but growth in stores was slowed in the second and third weeks of December amid concerns over the Omicron variant.
Sophie Michael, BDO’s head of retail and wholesale, warned businesses were facing a potent cocktail of high inflation, rising energy bills and potential increases to interest rates.
Michael added: “Retailers may find they struggle to attract consumer spending and to maintain low prices, particularly in fashion and footwear, as these pressures intensify this year.
“Retailers will now need to reinforce the resilience they have developed over the past two years if they are to survive further shocks to the system and see the strong growth of 2021 continue in 2022.”