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Alert for St James as consumers shun shops

St James Quarter

St James Quarter will open in early 2021

Shoppers are showing an increasing reluctance to return to Britain’s high streets as Covid restrictions drive more consumers online.

A decline in footfall in recent years has been exacerbated by the coronavirus and the latest figures show that is likely to accelerate, just weeks before Britain’s biggest new shopping complex – Edinburgh’s St James Quarter – is due to open.

The number of shoppers who are unlikely to return to their normal frequency of visits to the high street has risen from 25.5% in June to 46.7% this month, according to online booking and customer engagement platform Appointedd.

It conducted the two surveys to track any changes in how the public feel about in-store shopping since living with Covid-19.

The number who planned to shop locally rose from 45.3% in June to 64%, though this may have been influenced by the tightened restrictions on people’s ability to travel from one local authority area to another.


Appointedd founder and CEO Leah Hutcheon, said: “When we conducted the first survey shoppers and retailers were just getting to grips with social distancing and were introducing new measures to help people shop safely.

“It’s interesting to see just how much consumers have embraced new ways to shop. Our Appointedd virtual and online services are now used by three times as many retailers as at the start of 2020.”

Christmas shopping has been severely impacted by the pandemic with the number of shoppers down by 40% on Christmas Eve.

Boxing Day footfall was even worse, down 87% year-on-year, according to Sensormatic’s retail data from ShopperTrak, with high street shopper numbers down by 92% compared to 2019. 

The plummeting footfall figures were due to tightened covid-19 restrictions, forcing non-essential retail businesses to close in the toughest lockdown areas, but also the decision by many retailers, including Aldi, Asda, John Lewis, M&S and Home Bargains, to close their stores on Boxing Day.

Glasgow, in the strictest Scottish tier of restrictions, saw the biggest fall in shopper counts across the UK, down 99.7% compared to 2019.

Even in areas where non-essential retail remained open, footfall struggled. Liverpool saw footfall down 67% year-on-year, while in Leeds shopper numbers were down 66%.  London footfall dropped 99.2%, Portsmouth dipped 99.5% and Cardiff’s shoppers numbers fell 98.4%.

Multrees Walk, shop, retail, Edinburgh

Footfall fell sharply on Christmas Eve (pic: (Terry Murden)

Diane Wehrle, insights director at Springboard, said: “Since the start of the pandemic, the retail industry has been heavily impacted and retailers have had to adapt more than ever before.

Five of the 12 biggest regional cities – which account for 45% of footfall across all regional cities – have been in the highest tiers of lockdown.

The shift in consumer shopping habits will concern high streets struggling to cope with the drop off in trade. It also comes at a sensitive time for Edinburgh’s £1 billion St James Quarter which is scheduled to open in the Spring.

The St James Quarter, which was due to open in October, is one of the biggest construction projects in Europe and when it was conceived it aimed to transform the capital’s retail offering.

It continues to attract tenants, including some brands which are new to the city and to Scotland, and the owners believe this is a vote of confidence that will ensure it succeeds.

There is also a substantial restaurant offering and the hospitality sector will be hoping that the current lockdown measures are behind us by Easter when they are due to open.

However, experts today warned that the repeated lockdowns and social distancing rules could last until May or even into the summer of 2021.

Dr Simon Clarke, a microbiologist at the University of Reading, told MailOnline he expected lockdown rules would keep going ‘until April or May’ before the effects of mass vaccination would be strong enough to relax restrictions.

Dr Gabriel Scally, a doctor and public health professor at the University of Bristol, said he expects the rules to carry on for “months and months”, with some form of national lockdown inevitable because even Tier 4 “doesn’t seem to be working”.

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