Retailers are calling for more financial support from the government after shopper numbers dived more than two-fifths last year.
The number of people out and about on high streets, retail parks and in shopping centres fell more than 43% after government-imposed lockdowns intended to control the spread of the Covid-19 virus.
Numbers nearly halved in the all-important “golden quarter” between October and December, according to the latest figures from the British Retail Consortium and analysts at ShopperTrak.
London was the hardest hit in December, with footfall down 58% as it was among the first areas to be put under the tougher tier 4 restrictions, which involved closing most high street stores, pubs and restaurants. Retail parks, where stores tend to be more spacious and there is parking, fared better than high streets and shopping centres.
Wales and the south-east of England were the next worst-hit areas, while the north-west had the best end to the year, with sales down 36%. Liverpool enjoyed a period with only limited restrictions after its widespread testing effort.
Helen Dickinson, the chief executive of the British Retail Consortium trade body, called on the government to extend a property tax holiday for retailers as high street lockdowns on non-essential retailers, including those selling clothing, toys and electronics, were set to continue this month and potentially beyond.
“A third lockdown will be one too many for some businesses,” said Dickinson. “Rent bills continue to weigh heavily and the threat of a return to full business rates liability in April still looms. The government must urgently reassure those businesses hardest hit by the pandemic that they will receive vital financial support in the form of an extension to the coronavirus business rates relief.”
The boss of Sainsbury’s, Simon Roberts, also backed calls for business rates reform on Thursday, saying that the Covid-19 epidemic had made a review of the tax “absolutely critical and very important”.
“Covid needs to be the catalyst for change in the way business rates work,” Roberts said as he announced a surge in sales but falling profits at the UK’s second largest supermarket.
Sainsbury’s was among a group of retailers who repaid millions of pounds in business rates relief after public outcry about the benefit going to big companies that have benefited from their status as “essential” retailers able to trade during high street lockdowns. But the relief has proved vital for the survival of smaller businesses and those prevented from opening high street stores for many months last year.