Shoppers are back in force throughout regional Britain. In January, more people thronged the streets of Plymouth, a port city in south-west England, than before the pandemic, according to tracking data from the Centre for Cities. A string of conurbations in the north and Wales too have enjoyed more footfall. Yet London and Birmingham languish near the bottom of the list. Good news for levelling up?
Not quite. The data says more about city usage than the relative financial health of shoppers around the country. A low historical base can flatter, and spending does not always correlate with foot traffic. In London, spending is only one-fifth lower than pre-pandemic levels but the number of shoppers has halved.
Nationwide retailers, agnostic as to where people buy their goods, have ridden the upsurge. High street bellwether Next and discount peer B&M both lifted profit expectations last month. Greggs, a pie-shop chain that tilts heavily towards England’s northern regions, reported higher like-for-like sales year on year in the final quarter of 2021 despite December’s directive to work from home.
Yet the data flashes a couple of warnings. The first is sustainability. Spending one’s savings amassed during lockdown is one thing. Doing so when higher heating and food bills eat into pay cheques is another.
The second is the much-debated ebb and flow of city customer traffic. London attracts the weekend and night-time crowds but weekdays are more muted.
Assuming these trends persist, expect more bifurcated strategies in London and other big cities versus rump UK. Some outlets already adopt different opening hours. Pret A Manger, the purveyor of office workers’ lunchtime sandwiches, is open until 11pm in the heart of the theatre district but pulls the shutters down as early as 2.30pm in the City’s Bishopsgate.
Regulatory changes in the wake of the pandemic, such as allowing pubs to offer hot takeaway meals and making it easier to switch from commercial to other purposes, will encourage more flexibility. Cities, like much else, will be increasingly localised.
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