Dec 7, 2020
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Weekend crowds return to Christmas shop but Covid fears keep numbers down

Dec 7, 2020

They’re back! Shoppers flooded the high streets and malls across England in the first weekend since stores reopened on Wednesday, much to the relief of a struggling and battered retail sector.

Happy shoppers: Crowds thronged to London's Covent Garden over the weekend - Photo: Nigel Taylor

However, numbers were well down on a year ago as pandemic levels remain high and concerns over social distancing kept many at home.

Despite widespread reports of orderly, well-behaved shoppers, a Christmas market in Nottingham was forced to close permanently on Sunday due to uncontrollable crowds. Similar Christmas markets in Birmingham and Manchester have also been cancelled.

Meanwhile, hundreds of people were photographed crowding outside Harrods department store in Knightsbridge on Saturday afternoon. Four people were reportedly arrested as a crowd tried enter the famous store.

On average, England shopper numbers over the weekend were down 26% on this time last year, according to research firm Springboard. Across the UK as a whole, footfall was down by 30%. Numbers were also 38% down compared to the first Saturday in December last year. 

Of course, footfall across all UK retail destinations increased substantially compared to the previous weekend when selective lockdowns was still in full force and non-essential stores remained closed. It was up 40.3% overall with a rise of 61.1% in shopping centres, 40% in high streets and 19.1% in retail parks.

In England, the rise in footfall from Wednesday onward compared with the week before was 81% across all retail destinations, 121.3% in shopping centres, 79.8% in high streets and 40.7% in retail parks.

London’s West End and shopping centres across England experienced the biggest rises in weekend visitor numbers, with footfall up 140% and 173% respectively compared with last weekend but, again, below 2019’s corresponding figures.

Despite pockets of congestion in Oxford Street, Regent Street and Covent Garden, central London remained quieter than expected, given the dwindling number of shopping days left before Christmas.

On Sunday, shopper footfall in the capital was half what it would normally be a few weeks out from Christmas, Springboard noted.

However, retail parks looked to be seen as a safer and more comfortable shopping option with numbers down just 1.3% on same weekend a year ago and were only 10% down on the Sunday. On Saturday alone, footfall in retail parks across the UK was just 1.3% lower than in 2019.

Diane Wehrle, Springboard’s marketing and insights director, said there were positive signs nonetheless: "Part of this is timing - the proximity to Christmas means there is huge pent-up demand among consumers to shop in store to purchase gifts.

"However, it is also an indicator of 'lockdown fatigue', whereby after many months of being restricted to their homes, consumers are keen to visit retail stores again, particularly to experience the excitement of Christmas".

She added: "They have become accustomed to the 'new normal' that involves wearing face masks in stores and queuing in order to adhere to social distancing rules, which we were not all comfortable with in June.”

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