East’s high streets feel full brunt of spring chill as shoppers stay away

Shoppers in Bury St Edmunds town centre. Picture: EMMA BRENNAN

Shoppers in Bury St Edmunds town centre. Picture: EMMA BRENNAN - Credit: Archant

East Anglian high streets felt the full brunt of the spring chill as shopper numbers fell in March, partly driven by weather, but partly by long-term trends, figures reveal.

Poor weather so far this year is among the factors thought to have contributed to the drop in footfa

Poor weather so far this year is among the factors thought to have contributed to the drop in footfall in Ipswich. Picture: GREGG BROWN - Credit: Gregg Brown

Overall, UK shopper footfall fell by 6% in March, the steepest year-on-year drop since the end of 2010. The falls were most notable in Greater London, down 7.5%, and the South East, down 6.5%, but the East saw a regional fall of 5.6%, the BRC-Springboard Footfall and Vacancies Monitor showed.

British Retail Consortium chief executive Helen Dickinson said while the weather had an impact, shopper habits were changing.

Mark Cordell, chief executive officer at Our Bury St Edmunds Business Improvement District (BID) admitted the first quarter of this year was “not good”, with a drop of 8.4% on last year.

Although last year saw its highest first quarter since the town started recording figures in 2012, March was “awful”, he said, with footfall down 17% as snow and persistent rain kept shoppers away.

“From the stats I have access to I can there’s a substantial drop in footfall across the Eastern Region and the UK,” he said. “Weather clearly hasn’t helped but I suspect consumers are tightening their belts post Christmas. The stories of national brands closing isn’t a positive story. Rents and rates remain high in town centres even though as we can see footfall is declining.”

Retail unit vacancy rate was “pretty good” at around 5%, but there were four large empty units in the Buttermarket/Cornhill, he added.

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“As you would expect with such a complex issue there are no easy solutions but bad weather, reducing footfall, high rent & rates in town centres but not for large distribution warehouses ie, Amazon, increasing online sales and people’s changing shopping behaviours are all issues creating this decline.”

Michelle Reynolds, chairman Colchester Retail/Business Association (CORBA), said Colchester town centre seemed to be “very, very quiet”.

“A lot of the independents are saying how difficult trading is because the footfall is not there. Notoriously, the quieter months are directly after Christmas but a lot of people put it down to the weather.”

However, despite the spring freeze, the weather had not been really bad, she said.

“We are all just hoping for an upturn now,” she said. “We have all lived through bad weather before and it hasn’t hit us quite as bad as now.”

It wasn’t clear whether consumers just weren’t shopping or were shopping online, she said.

“The independents would say they are having a challenging time. It’s just a general feel across the town.”

There were pockets of empty shops and a controversial council ban on A-boards, but that didn’t explain the full problem, she said. “Generally the whole of the town is depressed,” she said. “The whole of the town almost doesn’t feel open. It’s very weird.”

But Alan Hassell, newly-appointed centre manager for the Buttermarket shopping centre in Ipswich, said his centre appeared to have bucked the trend, with the opening of its new Superbowl UK just before Easter offering a welcome boost to footfall.

“Easter was pretty good for us,” he said. “Having the Superbowl opening up the Wednesday before the Good Friday, that would have helped with the Easter trade definitely and it’s building, building.”

He added: “The night-time economy is obviously on the up.” But he added that changing habits would be a slow-build.

“Nothing is going to turn around overnight at the end of the day but it’s helping more to grow.”

Mike Sorhaindo, manager of Sailmakers Shopping Centre in Ipswich, said: “It has been a changeable time for retail national and regionally, but Sailmakers is outperforming the national trend. Over one and a quarter million shoppers came through our doors last quarter while music giant HMV opened in the Centre.

“The retail industry is currently going through unprecedented times both nationally and internationally and Sailmakers and its team are looking forward to the opportunities that are being offered as a result and with a busy programme of activities planned for the coming months, it’s an exciting time at the centre.”