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UK shopping malls and high streets hit hardest by Omicron

·Finance Reporter, Yahoo Finance UK
Omicron People walk past sale signs on the window of a shoe shop in Manchester, Britain, December 28, 2021. REUTERS/Phil Noble
Working from home measures to curb the spread of Omicron kept shoppers away from the high street. Photo:Phil Noble/Reuters

The latest work from home guidance to tackle the spread of the Omicron variant had a significant impact on footfall across UK retail destinations as shoppers avoided the high streets, new data shows.

Footfall across UK retail destinations fell 22.2% in high streets and 24.1% in shopping centres in December when compared to pre-pandemic levels, according to the figures from retail analyst Springboard.

The government announced tighter coronavirus restrictions on December 8 in England as part of a ‘Plan B’ strategy to curb the spread of the Omicron variant during winter. Among those measures was the work from home guidance that prompted shoppers not to wait for sales amid lockdown fears, and choosing to buy their Christmas presents online.

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“It is clear that whilst retailing was impacted by COVID in 2021, the roll out of the vaccine programme has been a game changer,” Diane Wehrle, insights director at Springboard, said.

Bricks and mortar businesses weathered the pandemic better in 2021, as the high vaccination rates brought back shoppers. Footfall strengthened every month until December, with the government’s Plan B curtailing the expected uplift from Christmas shopping.

Figures from the Office for National Statistics published on Friday show the volume of retail purchases fell 3.7% last month compared to a 1.4% rise in November when many Britons did early Christmas shopping.

Footfall across all UK destinations was -31.1% lower than in 2019, up from -39.1% in 2020, with retail parks showing to be more resilient than either high streets or shopping centres in retaining footfall.

Retail parks became more attractive for shoppers as they allowed for easier access by car, rely little on public transport and large stores allowed for easier social distancing.

In 2021, as a percentage of total retail sales, online sales averaged at 30%, increasing from 2020 when it averaged 27.2%.

Read more: UK retail sales plunge after Omicron spread

During the last lockdown that took place between January and March of last year, online sales soared to 35.7%, with shopping for clothing and footwear peaking at 57.4%.

Still, despite the improvement in home delivery, the vast majority of consumers continued to buy food and groceries in store during 2021. Online food sales averaged only 11% of total sales throughout 2021 and rose only slightly to 12.4% during the last lockdown, dropping back to 10.5% between April and December.

Springboard forecasts that the maturity of the hybrid office/home working model will result in a greater number of retail visits in the evening and at the weekend, longer dwell times and an increase in the combination of shopping and dining as the prospect of going out after a work day at home is more attractive.

“The experience of three lockdowns has taught us is that the need for human interaction and sensory satisfaction that we highlighted in the 2020 review really does drive visits and spend in stores and destinations,” Wehrle said.