The number of people hitting Britain’s high streets and shopping centres for the traditional Boxing Day sales rose sharply on last year when Covid concerns kept shoppers at home, but remained far short of pre-pandemic levels with the cost of living crisis expected to depress spending.
Figures from retail intelligence provider Springboard showed that footfall as of midday on Monday jumped 50 per cent on December 26 last year, when some restrictions were in place due to the spread of the Omicron variant and several large retailers remained closed.
But in the latest sign of the persistent pressures on bricks and mortar stores, foot traffic on the high street was down 25.3 per cent compared with pre-pandemic in 2019, while for shopping centres it was down 36.9 per cent.
The importance of the traditional Boxing Day event for the industry has waned as shoppers have moved online and retailers have adopted the US custom of offering discounts weeks before Christmas around the Black Friday sales in November.
Britain’s retailers are trying to cope with consumer belt-tightening as the cost of living crisis deepens, as well as increases in their own costs. Data last week showed the UK economy contracted by more than previously estimated in the third quarter, lagging behind other advanced nations, as households struggled with high inflation.
A survey by Barclaycard Payments found that shoppers intended to spend £229 in the the post-Christmas sales, a reduction of £18 from a year ago. “The rising cost-of-living and inflationary pressures have naturally had an impact,” said Harshna Cayley, head of online payments at Barclaycard Payments.
Diane Wehrle, insights director at Springboard, said transport disruption, caused by the rail strike, had further discouraged shoppers. In the run-up to Christmas footfall had been about 12 per cent lower than 2019 levels but the rate of decline had accelerated due to the industrial action, she added.
Instead of the normally reduced rail service on Boxing Day, the network was closed after the RMT rail union walked out for the festive period from Christmas Eve.
“When you can’t actually reach a store to shop, of course footfall is going to be lower,” Wehrle said. Even so, Wehrle added that it was “still a big uplift from last year, which is great. Shoppers want to go back into stores.”
Some retailers began their Christmas sales early this year. John Lewis was offering discounts online from 5pm on Christmas Eve. The company had decided to keep its stores closed on Boxing Day — in part to give employees time off during the festive season, it said.
Sunshine in the east and south-east England tempted some consumers out and footfall was stronger in those regions than in the north and Scotland, where there were some wintry showers.
The disruption on the railways came as Border Force officials early on Monday morning ended a three-day strike that started on December 23. Industrial action is due to resume on December 28 and last through to the early hours of December 31.
Flights from London’s main airports, Heathrow and Gatwick, were operating as normal on Monday. Gatwick airport said it was “business as usual”, with some 600 flights due to be handled over the course of the day. Heathrow said that with the “contingency measures in place the airport flowed well and flights ran as scheduled, which remains the picture today”.
Additional reporting by Sylvia Pfeifer