Snowfall blamed as sales dropped 3.3% in January
Last month's snow and freezing weather saw the number of shoppers on UK high streets fall by 3.3% in the worst January performance for three years, according to new figures.
One in 10 shops lay empty across the UK in January as the vacancy rate rose year-on-year to 10.9% in a difficult start to 2013 for the sector, the latest British Retail Consortium (BRC) and Springboard monitor revealed.
The drop in the so-called footfall in high-street shops came as snow blanketed much of Britain last month.
But out-of-town retail parks and shopping centres were hit hardest by the conditions, with shopper numbers down 7.2% and 5.2% respectively after the snow prevented many from travelling to stores.
Official figures last week revealed that sales volumes fell by a shock 0.6% last month – confounding expectations for a rise –after many small grocers were forced to shut up shop.
The Office for National Statistics (ONS) said the fall between December and January was driven by the biggest month-on-month decline in food sales since May 2011.
Small shops, such as convenience stores and high street butchers and bakers, were hit the hardest with sales falling 14.9% year-on-year, but online shopping services are thought to have helped the large supermarket chains record a rise of 0.3%.
But the BRC's own figures showed that spending rose by 3% last month, suggesting that people stocked-up when they were able to get to stores.
BRC director general Helen Dickinson said: "The mid-month snow took its toll on numbers of people out braving the elements, especially when making journeys to out-of-town retail parks, but it seems that many of us stayed one step ahead of the big chill and bought more on fewer shopping trips."
The overall drop in UK footfall was 4.6%, which is the worst since April last year. The only months recording an increase were September (0.5%) and November (0.4%).
The north and Yorkshire was the worst-hit region, with footfall down by 8.3%, followed by a 6.5% decline in the East Midlands, a 4.6% fall across Scotland and a 4% decrease in the east of England.
Wales saw shopper numbers drop 2.8% while there were falls of 2% in the south east and 1.4% in Northern Ireland.
Greater London recorded the smallest decline, at 1.1%, while numbers actually rose in the West Midlands and the south west, up 0.1% and 2.2% respectively.
The shop vacancy rates also make for grim reading after a torrid start to the year, which has seen a raft of high-profile retail collapses.
Fashion chain Republic was the latest to hit the wall last week, joining other major casualties HMV, Jessops and Blockbuster.
The BRC said it was encouraging that, while higher than the 10.3% seen last January, the vacancy rate was lower than the 11.3% recorded in October.
But some regions are particularly badly affected by vacant shops, with the rate in Wales deteriorating to 17% from 15.1% in October, while Northern Ireland improved to 17.2% from 20%. The vacancy rate in Scotland is 10.2%.