Shoppers in Ipswich and Milton Keynes avoid the Christmas rush as Covid caution continues

A shopper in Ipswich in the week before Christmas 2021.
A shopper in Ipswich in the week before Christmas 2021 Credit: ITV News Anglia

Shoppers remain cautious about returning to the high street, even in the run up to Christmas, latest analysis shows.

The week before Christmas is traditionally a boon for the retail industry as panicked shoppers try to snap up their final gifts before the big day.

But an analysis of footfall over the weekend found levels remain around 25% down on pre-pandemic levels - with previously busy city centres feeling the brunt of the decline.

Retail analysts Springboard found shoppers seemed to be favouring smaller local high streets and out-of-town retail parks.

And on Sunday, footfall had dropped even compared with the week before, suggesting many people had got out early to do their shopping to avoid the crowds.

At the Buttermarket in Ipswich, it has been the busiest week since February 2020 - but numbers are 24% down on this time in 2019.

Weekday footfall is struggling more than the weekends - with the absence of office workers being felt most keenly.

Shoppers are more cautious on the high street in the run up to Christmas Credit: ITV News Anglia

At the weekend, Ipswich Borough Council warned, if things did not improve, businesses would need further help to survive.

Cllr Sarah Barber said: "We've been trying to organise events to attract people into the town but if things carry on, I think what we are going to have to be calling for is some central government support for the businesses so they are here when things improve."

In Milton Keynes, Midsummer Place has seen a steady stream of customers - but not the crowds it would usually expect in late December.

Shopper Julie Munn said she believed Christmas should be cancelled.

"I think it's too risky," she said. "Mixing is just waiting for a disaster to happen. It's just going to get worse before it gets better and they should have made this decision a long time ago. Put us back in lockdown and stop faffing around."

Melanie Whetstone-Magee, manager at Gymcub sportswear shop, said she had noticed a change in shopping habits.

"We're getting out there and we are trying to enjoy ourselves, but I don't think people are lingering," she said. "People are coming out, they're getting what they want and they are going. I don't believe there's a lot of mooching around."

ITV News reporter Wesley Smith on one town's festive preparations

The Christmas cheer in and around Milton Keynes has certainly been subdued as I’ve travelled around the area over the past couple of days. In many ways, shopping at Midsummer Place early on Monday was ideal if you don’t like crowds.

Businesses told me it’s been steady, but there was plenty of parking and not too many people weighed down with heavy shopping bags as far as I could see, although it did appear to be picking up early in the evening.  

In one of the town's pubs, visitors were clearly enjoying the cosy festive atmosphere over lunch, but there was certainly plenty of space to welcome more. And it's not just customers who are being cautious. In a quiet moment, a barman told me he’s ensuring he tests everyday to make sure he can get home to Wales to be with his family and to get in some Boxing Day rugby. 

So, yes, the trees are up and festooned with lights and Santa is in his grotto, but it somehow feels like parts of the area are going through the motions right now and hoping against hope they can just stay fit and well to enjoy the Christmas they all want this weekend.