'Unnerving' start to year for Welsh retail as fall in high street shoppers prompts call for support

The Welsh Retail Consortium said Government advice to minimise mixing and the decision to bring back social distancing has contributed to the decrease in footfall.

A group representing the Welsh retail sector has called for more support for businesses following "a profoundly worrying" Christmas.

The Welsh Retail Consortium (WRC) said business owners have suffered a "turbulent year", with footfall on the high streets in December 2021 down by around 20% when compared to pre-pandemic December 2019.

It suggests Government ministers consider taking action like removing the cap on business rates relief.

A Welsh Government spokesperson said a £120 million support package has already been announced for businesses affected by restrictions brought in at Christmas and the cabinet will "continue to consider whether additional emergency business support funding is needed."

The WRC compared data from last December to the last December for the pandemic to make a more "meaningful" comparison. Credit: PA Images

According to data from the WRC, footfall on Welsh high streets fell by 20.1% in December 2021 when compared to pre-pandemic. That is worse than the UK average decline of 18.6%.

When it came to shopping centres, the drop was even more significant with 38.5% less shoppers when compared to December 2019.

Sara Jones, Head of the WRC, said government advice to minimise mixing and the decision to bring back social distancing has contributed to the fall.

She said: “Shopper footfall in Wales plummeted further last month, during what would traditionally be the busiest time of the year, as government advice to work from home and socialise less coupled with the reintroduction of physical distancing in stores exerted its toll.

"Visits to shops in December were down a fifth on the comparable period prior to the pandemic, plunging for a second successive month. December saw the weakest monthly figures for store visits since July, and the deterioration was seen across all retail destinations.

“It rounded off a profoundly worrying ‘golden quarter’ for Welsh shopkeepers, many of whom traditionally need strong pre-Christmas trading in order to tide them over the fallow winter months. It heralds an unnerving start to the new year for many retailers."

She added a plea for Welsh Government to take further steps to support businesses.

"Welsh Ministers must stand ready to support the retail industry further if these conditions are set to persist," she said.

"For example, by removing the cap on the business rates relief announced in the Welsh Budget, or through a high street stimulus scheme like Northern Ireland has implemented.”

Shops in Wales must ensure two-metre social distancing, which reduces the amount of customers businesses can allow in at once.

A Welsh Government spokesperson said ministers understand that some of "the measures in place to protect the public and staff are having an impact on businesses" but there is financial support in place.

They said: “Our £120m package of emergency financial support covers impacted businesses for the period from 13 December 2021 to 14 February 2022.

"Businesses eligible for non-domestic rates-based payments need to register with their local authority from 13 January, and will start receiving payments shortly afterwards. Systems are being established as quickly as possible to enable this. The application window for the Economic Resilience Fund will open during the week starting 17 January with payments reaching businesses within days.

 “On top of this, for 2022-23 the Finance Minister in the recent budget confirmed an additional £116m package of non-domestic rates relief for businesses in sectors hardest hit, which means retail, leisure and hospitality businesses will receive 50% non-domestic rates relief.”

They added that the cabinet reviews restrictions weekly "and will continue to consider whether additional emergency business support funding is needed".

While retail businesses are allowed to operate under Alert Level 2 restrictions, customers must wear face masks unless exempt and two-metre social distancing must be adhered to.

The First Minister Mark Drakeford confirmed that there would be no changes to the rules on January 7 and Wales would continue to operate under the same restrictions for at least another week.

The next Government review will be on Friday January 14.