“£180 billion of lockdown savings”, “Retail sales back to pre-pandemic levels”, “High street footfall shows signs of recovery” (Source: Financial Times, BBC, Modern Retail). While the positive headlines surrounding the reopening of the retail sector is a welcome change from the ‘death of the high street’ narrative, whether the combination of reopening and pent-up consumer demand truly represents a pathway to normality for these embattled sectors is questionable.
So, first, what do the numbers from reopening, rather than the headlines, tell us? Footfall in the first two weeks of reopening suggested consumers returned to shops faster than after the first national lockdown in June 2020; however, footfall remains materially down versus pre-pandemic levels, with significant variations by location type (-22.8% versus 2019 levels for the week ending 15 May: source: ShopperTrak). Meanwhile, ONS data for April found that retail sales volumes were up 12.4% versus 2019 levels, substantially ahead of the three-year pre-pandemic average of 2.4%, with non-food store sales up 3.9% and the internet accounting for 29.4% of all sales, versus 19.1% in February 2020. Finally, UK restaurant reservations in the first week post-indoor settings reopening were 42% ahead of 2019 levels (Open Table, State of the Industry). While it remains early days, this tells us three things: