A study by the British Retail Consortium (BRC) found the average retail vacancy rate to be 11.2%. That grim figure rose to 13.1% in the north of England, 13.4% in Wales, and a downright depressing 17.1% in Northern Ireland.
Not that it comes as a huge surprise: higher inflation, job losses and low wage growth are hardly a great encouragement to people to go out and buy shiny new things. Indeed, a survey by Markit has now revealed that 40% of households saw their income fall between July and August – and at a faster rate than at the height of the recession in 2009. Only 6% saw an improvement. Only last week Asda said high fuel prices were keeping its customers away. It estimates families have on average £9 less disposable income each week compared with this time last year.
The BRC also makes a link with goings-on in the public sector – it points out that the parts of the UK where the public sector plays a bigger part in the economy are likely to be most hit by a drop in customer spending, as local people become increasingly worried about cuts.
So it seems the days are becoming increasingly dark for retailers, a hypothesis that’s only confirmed by the finer points of the BRC survey, which is now able to measure in detail just how many of us are choosing to venture out and plod round the shops. Overall footfall turned out to be down 1% on July a year earlier. That decline reached 9.2% in Wales, 6.6% in West Midlands and 6.2% in east of England. There was some good news: footfall rose by 1.6% in London (and as that was back in May it doesn’t include people embarking on a smash-and-grab in JD Sports).
The BRC report comes after official figures released last week showed that retail sales grew only slightly in July, up 0.2% from June. And it’s hard to imagine it getting any better. For one thing the major retailers are realising that, thanks to web fulfilment, they don't need a branch on every high street any more. Meanwhile rents are generally still too high for struggling small local traders to contend with. Unless landlords adopt a more reasonable approach to rent and rent rises, to let signs may well become more prevalent.