The lifting of work-from-home orders at the end of January failed to boost shopping traffic as retail footfall across Scotland slumped further in February.
The “underwhelming and disappointing” figures released today by the Scottish Retail Consortium (SRC) come amid rising concerns about the impact of the cost-of-living crisis on economic recovery. They also underline the difficulties faced by city and town centres that have been hit hardest by the exodus of office workers.
Compared to the same period two years earlier, Scottish footfall decreased by 17.5 per cent in February. That was 1.3 percentage points worse than in January, and significantly poorer than the average UK decline of 14.9%.
Other than London, where footfall was down by 22.7%, Scotland was the worst-performing of the 13 UK regions monitored by the British Retail Consortium.
“Sadly, this means there was little boost to retailers from the rescinding of the work-from-home order at the very start of the month,” SRC director David Lonsdale said.
“As such this was an underwhelming and disappointing performance. That said, the dip wasn’t uniform across all destinations as shopping centres saw their first monthly improvement since the autumn.”
Shopping centre footfall in Scotland declined by 31.2% in February, compared to a fall of 36.6% in the previous month. However, shopping centres remain the worst-performing locations, with retail parks faring the best followed by high street destinations.
The relative out-performance by the high street was not evident in Glasgow, where footfall was down 19% compared to February 2020. Last month’s performance was 1.4 percentage points worse than in January.
Stuart Patrick, chief executive of the Glasgow Chamber of Commerce, said the figures were “disappointing yet not surprising” as weekday trade remains the metropolitan area’s Achilles heel compared to other cities where there appears to have been a quicker return of office workers.
“However, it is worth noting that the strategic framework for lifting restrictions was not announced until the end of February,” he said, referring to the lifting of remaining restrictions in Scotland. “We do now have a date for when the legal constraints are lifted on businesses on the 21st of March, and we will begin to see more clearly how extensive the effects of hybrid working will be and therefore the pace at which weekday trade may return.
“There is a considerable amount of work needed to get our city centre into shape, there is no doubt about it. But recent plans announced by the city centre task force make for a promising start as we look to bring it back to life.”
In a similar vein, Mr Lonsdale welcomed last month’s announcement of a further £3 million from the Scottish Government in support of the city centre recovery fund. But with inflation putting downward pressure on disposable incomes, this funding must “swiftly” be put to good use.
“Concerns about the cost of living and even the bleak weather in the second half of the month could well have exerted a downward pressure on visits to stores,” he said.
“However, these figures do underline the protracted nature of the recovery and the need for concerted action and a more upbeat message from policy makers in the short-term to encourage and entice shoppers back. After all, much of our wider economy is ultimately dependent on what happens to consumer spending.”
Despite Scotland’s disappointing performance, total footfall across the UK ranks among the top five for recovery across European markets.
Andy Sumpter, retail consultant with Sensormatic Solutions, said this suggests growing confidence among UK shoppers. With Covid restrictions lifted in England, and due to be lifted in Scotland later this month, retailers will be hoping this is the “beginning of the end” of the crisis.
“Our latest data shows consumer concern about in-store safety fell by 18 percentage points year-on-year,” he said. “However, shoppers now face new and growing pressures.
“The cost-of-living squeeze and inflation, which is putting downward pressures on disposable income, and a volatile macroeconomic and geopolitical climate could create a perfect storm of uncertainty for consumers, which could still impact the long-term retail recovery as it looks to build back post-pandemic.”