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What does the new world of working mean for retail footfall post-Covid? By Diane Wehrle, Insights Director at Springboard

Probably the most fundamental shift in consumer behaviour since the pandemic started that has impacted retail destinations is the shift to home working. Throughout 2020 and 2021, the majority of previously office-based employees continued to work from home. Inevitably, this has caused a huge change in consumer shopping behaviour and the choice of retail destinations visited which was driven by where consumers find themselves during retail trading hours.

Pre-pandemic, most office-based employees were in towns and city centres during the working week and able to shop close to their offices, but unable to access smaller high street destinations closer to their homes.  However, since Covid hit the situation has reversed, with easy access to larger city centres prohibitive from Monday to Friday.  Of course, mandated lockdowns followed closely by ongoing restrictions didn’t make it easy or appealing for shoppers to make trips to larger retail destinations, so they continued to stay local, delivering a far greater degree of resilience to the adverse impact of Covid.

The evidence of this is clear; over the two years from January 2020 to December 2021 while footfall in Central London was -55.9% below 2019 and -43.4% below 2019 in regional cities outside of the capital, in Outer London and in market towns the gap from 2019 was noticeably smaller at -31.6% and -34.3% respectively.

The key question now that the vaccination programme has been so successful and restrictions have eased, is whether employees are returning to their offices and boosting footfall in larger towns and cities. 

Investment in the set up to work from home and the improved home/life balance means employees are reluctant to return to the office completely, suggesting that the hybrid model is here to stay. However, the evidence points to a gradual drift rather than a huge resurgence of office-based working, particularly in London.

In the first two months of 2022 footfall in Central London remained -35.4% lower than in 2019 versus -18.2% in Outer London, albeit that a proportion of this gap is a consequence of lower levels of tourism, both domestic and international. In cities outside of London, which typically have lower levels of tourism than London and so rely more heavily on footfall from residents and workers, footfall has recovered faster with the gap from 2019 narrowing to -26.6% versus -35.4% in Central London.

So what does this mean for smaller high streets, many of which were considered to be “dying” pre-Covid?  The initial evidence suggests the current hybrid home/office working model is insulating more local destinations, delivering much needed activity during the working week. In the first two months of 2022, footfall in market towns averaged -25.5% below 2019 versus -26.6% in regional cities around the UK. 

Small local high streets are clearly at a pivotal point, with an opportunity to emerge from the Covid period with a larger and more loyal customer base than they have had for decades. To achieve this, however, it’s critical they fully understand the current and emerging dynamics of consumer behaviour and use this to shape their offer to match the demands of the new hybrid worker – after all, “if you don’t use it you lose it”.

This was first published in Retail Destination Fortnightly. Click here to subscribe.

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