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So all’s fine and dandy on the high street? Not so, say retailers

Retail sales bounced back in January and then some, according to data published this morning by the Office for National Statistics (ONS). The ONS said sales rose by 1.9% in January, as shoppers returned to bricks and mortar shops after the Omicron variant trashed footfall in December.

Darren Morgan, director of economic statistics at the ONS, said this of the January data: “After a sluggish December, where the Omicron wave had a significant impact, retail sales rebounded in January with their biggest monthly rise since the shops reopened last spring.”

So all's fine and dandy on the UK high street once again? Not so, according to some small businesses, whose experience of January was the polar opposite of what the official data suggests.

Barry Whitehouse, owner at Banbury-based art shop, The Artery, was left scratching his head: “This data doesn't tally with what we experienced. Footfall in January was still visibly lacking in store and in town, and to be honest for the first time I am worried for the future of my shop. January was around 50% down on pre-pandemic levels and has left me wondering if I’ve just had my last Christmas as a bricks and mortar retailer. My only hope is that the lighter evenings and warmer Spring air will bring more people out shopping again.”

Another bricks and mortar retailer, Elizabeth Jones, owner of Balham-based children’s clothings and gift shop, Natural for Baby, echoed Barry’s views: “As the owner of a small shop on the high street, I've noticed that people are simply not out and about as you would expect, and one of the main reasons is almost certainly they do not have enough disposable income these days. High inflation is to blame for low levels of footfall.”

Shirley Leader, director of Petersfield-based women's clothing boutique, Velvet & Rose, was marginally upbeat but still acknowledges the many challenges that lie ahead: “December was tough for so many small high street businesses, but I believe we are through the worst of the pandemic economically and that is perhaps — hopefully — shown in the January data. We now need people to be out and about in the UK and spending.”

Government High Streets Task Force expert Dr Jackie Mulligan, and founder of ShopAppy, was also encouraged but cautious in equal measure: “After a truly dire December, it's encouraging that things appeared to start picking up in January. Long may it continue. However, inflation and the cost of living crisis are hitting small high street businesses from all angles. With consumers really feeling the pinch, the retail sector still has a huge number of hurdles ahead. We all need to do our best and support independent high street businesses as much as possible.”

Maddy Alexander-Grout, CEO of the Southampton-based money-saving app, My VIP Rewards, also saw a marked tick-up in activity levels in January: “December was absolutely atrocious but January, by contrast, was our best month ever, with a massive increase in the number of people wanting to save money on their everyday spending. Almost certainly this is down to rising inflation, energy bills and interest rates.”

The consensus appears to be that, while footfall may have picked up in January, the soaring cost of living means many small high street businesses will remain under the cosh through 2022. There may be green shoots, but will they survive under the size 12 Doc Marten that is inflation?

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