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Discovering the true impact to footfall on our high streets

We are joined by Diane Wherle, Marketing & Insights Director at Springboard Research, leaders in footfall analysis.

Without doubt 2020 has been an unprecedented period in our economic history; the COVID 19 pandemic brought the majority of the world's economies to a sudden and almost complete stop during April, and it is only now that economic activity is starting to resume with any sense of normality.  Inevitably, high streets - with their reliance on human intervention - are at the forefront of those sectors most affected.  At Springboard, we track the performance of bricks and mortar destinations through footfall and sales, and we do this continuously 24/7.  So it's not surprising that we have been able to establish the impact of COVID on high streets, and as crucially the path of recovery.  Springboard's footfall data is gathered from a network of 4,500 automated digital counters tracking footfall 24/7 across the UK.  We have been doing this since 2002, and so have the most comprehensive and accurate dataset of customer activity - we have had the experience of tracking performance through the 2009 recession, and it's fair to say that this year has been like no other we have witnessed.

We all know that high streets have had their trading challenges for a number of years, the catalyst being the growth of online diverting spend away from high streets.  However, the main challenge here was not so much the diverted spend itself - although the 20% of spend that was diverted online was sorely missed by bricks and mortar stores - but rather the impact that online had on customer behaviour in terms of the number of trips made, the impact of which reverberates throughout all high street businesses.    So in January and February 2020 when high street footfall across the UK dropped by -4.8% from the same two months in 2019, following a cumulative decline in footfall of -20.5%  to the end of 2019 and  an average drop in high street footfall of -1.3% in January and February of 2019, all the portents indicated that we were already heading for a tough year.  But even at that time we would not have anticipated what was to come.

In March the pandemic rapidly became a reality.  Even before we officially went into lock down on 23rd March, footfall had begun to slide with many offices in large city centres - particularly in London - closing their doors by mid-March.  In the week before lockdown was announced footfall in UK high streets declined by -41% year on year compared with just -6.6% in the week before.  In Central London footfall declined by two thirds (-66.6%) and even in the week before that footfall had dropped by -13.9%.  In Croydon however, the decline in the week before lockdown was far less severe, at just -14.4%, which was sharp reversal from a rise in footfall of +5.7% in the week before.  We didn't appreciate it at the time, but the lesser initial impact felt by Croydon was to become a key characteristic of the "new normal", with a far more modest impact felt in high streets outside of Central London as people worked from home and shopped locally.  Indeed, across the UK we saw that the smallest high streets - which in fact had faced the greatest trading challenges - were the most resilient in terms of retaining their footfall.

When the lock down came into force in Week 13 footfall in UK high streets plunged, with a drop of  85.3% by the third week and 93% in Central London.  In Outer London, however, the largest drop was -76% by the third week and Croydon mirrored this with a drop in footfall of -75.8%.  As the weeks progressed, however, the lockdown restrictions were eased footfall started to edge up.  There were clear fillips when non-essential retail opened (in Week 25 in England) which meant footfall moved from an annual decline of -73.5% in the week before to -61.3%.  In London, however, with its huge geographical expanse mix of centres the shift was more complex.  In Central London footfall improved only marginally from -85.4% to -79.1% whilst in Outer London footfall strengthened to a greater extent, moving from a drop of -58.9% to -45.5%.  In Croydon, the upward shift was as significant as Outer London generally although, its significance as an office location and the loss of office workers meant that it started from a lower base, with footfall moving from an annual decline of -64.1% in the week before to -52% when non-essential retail reopened.

So how has Croydon fared over the period as a whole?  Well, the analysis is made easier by looking at 2020 as three distinct phases: pre lockdown, lockdown and post lockdown. During pre-lockdown Croydon was definitely strengthening with a rise in footfall of +12.7% from the same period in 2019, whilst in both Central and Outer London footfall declined (by -4.1% and -4% respectively).  During lockdown, Croydon was on par with Outer London, with footfall declining by two thirds (a drop of -64.9%).  Post-lockdown, however, it has lagged behind Outer London with footfall remaining at around half the level of 2019 (-45.7%), whilst in Outer London footfall is around a third less (-35.9%).  In Central London, in the post-lockdown period footfall has remained 71.5% lower than last year, and it is clearly suffering from the lack of workers and tourists.

With events moving so rapidly from week to week, even day to day in some places around the UK it is not possible at this stage to forecast with any certainty what Croydon's path of recovery is likely to look like.  However, our early forecasts at a national level - and given the unprecedented nature of this period it is really only possible to look at a national picture at the moment - if the path of footfall continues as it has done so to date, by Christmas we should expect that footfall will remain 15% to 20% lower than in 2019.  But with all forecasts, there is no guarantee - it could be worse or better than this - but by tracking footfall 24/7 Springboard is able to deliver the very latest insights on a daily basis, giving the BID the evidence it needs to implement the most appropriate initiatives to encourage footfall back into the town centre and to support local businesses.

For the latest footfall insights, visit Springboard at www.spring-board.info.

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