England’s high streets remained far quieter on Monday than before the coronavirus hit, despite long queues outside many chain stores as non-essential retailers re-opened.
Footfall in the first two hours of trading was down 44% compared to a year earlier, according to analysis by retail data firm Springboard for the BBC.
But Diane Wehrle, Springboard’s marketing and insights director, said the lifting of the retail shutdown had still sparked a significant leap in high street visits compared to the previous week. Visitor numbers were up 42.8% on last Monday morning, when many storefronts remained shuttered.
Long queues at Primark, Nike, and other fashion retailers
Chancellor Rishi Sunak appealed to the public to “get out there, shop safely and give your local businesses the support they need” on Monday.
Widely shared photos of long queues outside Primark stores across the country suggested many shoppers were doing just that.
Socially distanced queues snaked round two corners at central Liverpool’s Primark store early in the morning, sparking staff to open earlier than planned. Heavy rain failed to deter customers in central Manchester, with long queues at lunchtime.
Long queues were also reported outside Zara, TK Maxx, H&M, John Lewis, Sports Direct, and Footlocker stores in large towns and cities across England.
Photos showed shoppers crowded together around the entrance to a Nike store in central London, but most media outlets reported social distancing rules being largely followed. One Primark shopper in Birmingham was even spotted wearing a full-length protective suit.
“It is great to see the sheer volume of pent up demand that exists,” tweeted retail expert Jonathan de Mello. “The next few weeks will be absolutely crucial — both in terms of offloading stock but also much-needed cash flow.”
‘Lockdown’s been hard so I want to treat myself’
Primark’s queues sparked fresh debate on social media over whether more shops should be opening at all. One staff member in southern England told Yahoo Finance UK before her shift that stores were opening too soon, warning some shoppers would now “care even less” about virus precautions.
But shoppers defended getting out. “Lockdown has been hard and boring so I want to treat myself," one TK Maxx customer told PA as she queued to buy some new dresses.
Detailed sales figures from John Lewis’ two re-opened stores suggested many customers were stocking up on what many would see as essentials. Towels, sofas, and print cartridges were top sellers in Poole, while buttons, baby sleepsuits and face coverings proved popular in Kingston.
Many stores and local authorities have also put significant effort into social distancing measures, from hand sanitiser stations and floor markings to temperature checks at Apple stores.
‘Quieter than usual’ for many shops
The queues outside some major retailers may not represent most shops’ experiences, however.
“It’s been a bit quieter than usual, but that’s to be expected when some people are isolating,” said Georgia Eckert, who runs independent bookshop Imagined Things in Harrogate, North Yorkshire.
Eckert told Yahoo Finance UK every shopper before lunchtime had bought something though, with customers reporting they were “missing” shops as well as keen to support them.
“It’s been lovely to have people in — everyone’s really happy to be here,” she added.
The bookshop capped customer numbers at five, and even turned some of its books over to be “blurb up” so readers did not need to touch them.
Personal finance blogger Andy Webb said shoppers’ bags across Harrogate’s town centre suggested most were similarly “spending money, not just browsing.”
But he said large budget retailers like Primark and Poundland were the only shops full or with queues. “Sadly independent shops didn’t seem to be that busy.”
Council tells shoppers to stay away
Even major cities were clearly far from back to normal, despite the queues outside some stores. Journalists reported some leading retail streets were largely empty in Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool.
Springboard’s analysis suggests high street footfall nationwide was up on recent weeks but still subdued compared to before the pandemic. Wehrle told BBC’s You and Yours a “whole tranche” of shoppers were still missing at retail parks, from those shielding to office workers.
De Mello noted that footfall patterns in Germany, Spain and Italy suggested customers would only return gradually over the next fortnight, and only return to around half their pre-pandemic levels.
It chimes with survey data released on Monday. A YouGov poll found just 40% of Brits were comfortable returning to stores, and a Visa poll found 70% were concerned about reopening.
“I kind of feel quietly hopeful about the future long-term, but I think its gonna be tough,” said Eckert of her shop. “The next few months are going to be a really hard time for a lot of businesses, maybe make-or-break.”
Visitor numbers were still high enough to spark a plea from one local authority for shoppers to stay away. Liverpool council tweeted a photo of a winding queue leading up to Zara, alongside the message: “Please consider shopping another time.”