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One in seven shop fronts empty as COVID batters high street

Saleha Riaz
·2-min read
'The forced closure of thousands of shops during the first quarter of 2021 has exacerbated already difficult conditions for the retail industry,' said the CEO of the British Retail Consortium.
'The forced closure of thousands of shops during the first quarter of 2021 has exacerbated already difficult conditions for the retail industry,' said the CEO of the British Retail Consortium. Photo: Getty

There are now 5,000 fewer stores on the UK’s high streets since the start of the pandemic, the British Retail Consortium (BRC) estimates.

This means one in seven shops now lie empty, said CEO Helen Dickinson.

The forced closure of thousands of shops during the first quarter of 2021 has exacerbated already difficult conditions for the retail industry,” she added.

Shopping centres, many of which were forced to close for a large portion of the pandemic, were the worst-hit of all retail locations, with over 12% of units lying empty for a year or more.

“With full business rates relief and the moratorium on aggressive debt enforcement ending in England this summer, many stores may never reopen,” warned Dickinson.

She urged the government to ensure the ongoing business rates review “leads to reform of the broken system and permanently reduces the cost burden which is leading to unnecessary stores closures and job losses.”

The BRC, along with Local Data Company, also revealed that in the first quarter of 2021, the overall rate of vacant units increased to 14.1% from 13.7% in the last quarter of 2020.

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This was 1.9 percentage points higher year-on-year and marks three years of increasing vacancy rates.

All locations saw an increase in vacancies in Q4, with shopping centre vacancies increasing to 18.4% from Q4 2020’s 17.1%.

On the high street, vacancies increased to 14.1% in the first quarter, in line with the overall rate and up from 13.7% the previous three months.

Retail park vacancies had by far the lowest rate of increase. They ticked up slightly to 10.6% in Q1 2021 from 10% in Q4 2020. 

“We would argue that we have not yet seen the true impact of this third lockdown and this will only be obvious once the market has had the chance to re-open fully,” said Lucy Stainton, director at Local Data Company, said.

But she said the early indications from the first few weeks of the easing of restrictions shows "there is still significant demand for physical retail and eating out."

"Hopefully, as consumer confidence continues to build momentum with reduced COVID-19 cases, more of the population vaccinated and warmer weather, further fall out from the pandemic might be mitigated somewhat.”

She also said that the increase in vacancies may be stabilised with retail properties being converted to office space and residential property.

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