UK/Suffolk: January weather adds to retailers’ woes as footfall drops

Ipswich town centre covered in snow earlier this year

Ipswich town centre covered in snow earlier this year - Credit: Archant

SHOPPER numbers fell to a three-year January low last month as snow and freezing weather took their toll, according to the latest UK retail figures.

As temperatures plummeted, so did shopper numbers, with footfall down by 3.3% across the UK, and 4% in the east. Ipswich saw a 2% drop. To add to the misery, one in 10 shops lay empty across the UK last month as the vacancy rate rose year-on-year to 10.9%, the latest British Retail Consortium (BRC) and Springboard monitor revealed.

The drop in high street footfall came as snow blanketed much of Britain last month, but out-of-town retail parks and shopping centres were hit hardest by the conditions, with shopper numbers down 7.2% and 5.2% respectively.

Official figures last week revealed that sales volumes fell by a shock 0.6% last month - confounding expectations for a rise - after many small grocers were forced to shut up shop.

The Office for National Statistics said the fall between December and January was driven by the biggest month-on-month decline in food sales since May 2011. But the BRC’s own figures showed that spending rose by 3% last month, suggesting that people stocked-up when they were able to get to stores.

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In Ipswich, town centre retail figures for January show that there was a small increase of plus 1.35% in year-on-year, like-for-like trading figures, according to Ipswich Central, while nationally the retail spend was down -0.6%.

Bury St Edmunds’ vacancy rates for empty shops stood slightly below the national average at 10.1%. However, Bid4Bury chief executive Mark Cordell said he was concerned at the numbers of units which had been empty for more than a year. With innovative marketing and hard work, shops were bucking the national trend, he said. But he added: “It is clearly still a difficult time with yet another business rate hike on the horizon and no sign of rents being lowered to a more realistic level.”

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Paul Clement, chief executive of Ipswich Central said “January is traditionally a tough month for retailers across the country. Therefore the slight increase in spend in Ipswich in comparison to last year and in comparison to the national picture should be viewed with cautious optimism.”

The overall drop in footfall was 4.6%, which is the worst since April last year.

The north and Yorkshire was the worst-hit region, with footfall down by 8.3%, followed by a 6.5% decline in the East Midlands, a 4.6% fall across Scotland and a 4% decrease in the east of England.

Wales saw shopper numbers drop 2.8% while there were falls of 2% in the south east and 1.4% in Northern Ireland.

Greater London recorded the smallest decline, at 1.1%, while numbers actually rose in the West Midlands and the south west, up 0.1% and 2.2% respectively.

The shop vacancy rates also make for grim reading after a torrid start to the year, which has seen a raft of high-profile retail collapses.

Fashion chain Republic was the latest to hit the wall last week, joining other major casualties HMV, Jessops and Blockbuster.

The BRC said it was encouraging that, while higher than the 10.3% seen last January, the vacancy rate was lower than the 11.3% recorded in October.

But some regions are particularly badly affected by vacant shops, with the rate now standing at 17% in Wales, 17.2% in Northern Ireland and 10.2% in Scotland.

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