Dismal weather kept consumers away from the high street last month, prompting the steepest drop in shopper numbers since the end of 2010.
The number of people visiting shops in March dropped 6% compared with the same month last year after strong winds and snow hit the UK. A survey of Visa card users indicated that consumer spending slid 2% in March, rounding off a poor start to the year for the retail sector.
“The severe weather put paid to any glimmer of hope for an uplift in shopper activity in March,” said Diane Wehrle, a director at Springboard, which compiled the footfall data. “A proportion of this was made up over Easter, with footfall in shopping centres and retail parks rising from last Easter. but this was more than offset by the impact of the heavy rain on high streets.”
High streets were the hardest hit, with visitor numbers down 8.6%, but shopping centres and retail parks also experienced declines, of 4.8% and 1.8% respectively, according to Springboard.
The drop was particularly marked as this year’s chilly March was set against balmy conditions a year ago when temperatures rivalled holiday hotspots such as Mallorca and Ibiza.
It is noteworthy that e-commerce spend fell for the first time in 10 months, and by its fastest rate since 2012
Mark Antipof, Visa
But Mark Antipof, chief commercial officer at Visa, which accounts for £1 in every £3 spent in the UK, said the bad weather did not entirely explain the lacklustre spending in March.
“We are in the midst of a dip in consumer confidence and this – coupled with other economic factors – is causing shoppers to continue to restrain themselves,” Antipof said. “High street sales suffered once again; however, it is also noteworthy that e-commerce spend fell for the first time in 10 months, and by its fastest rate since 2012.”
Online sales fell 1.2% in March compared with a 0.3% rise in February, while face-to-face transactions slid 3% versus a 2.4% dip in the previous month according to Visa, whose data forms the basis of a UK consumer spending index compiled by IHS Markit.
The difficult conditions will pile pressure on retailers already suffering from rising costs and consumers’ caution in the face of food price inflation and a squeeze on their spare cash.
Big names including Toys R Us and Bargain Booze owner Conviviality have fallen into administration, while New Look and Carpetright are closing dozens of stores in order to restructure. Mothercare and Homebase are also considering closing large numbers of stores.
Brexit-fuelled inflation and a rise in business rates has made life tougher, just as the industry is battling to adapt to a switch to shopping online and a preference for spending on experiences such as holidays or meals out.
Annabel Fiddes, principal economist at IHS Markit, said the outlook remained difficult. “While we could expect to see a relative improvement in the numbers next month as weather conditions normalise, the underlying trend remains relatively weak as recent data, including PMI [purchasing manager’s index] surveys, show signs of a slowdown.”