By Daniel Hunter
The British Retail Consortium's latest Retail Sales Monitor shows that more than one in 10 shops are empty, the highest since it began collecting data on occupancy levels of High Street premises.
The national town centre vacancy rate in the UK was 11.3% in October 2012 (high streets and shopping centres), the highest figure since the monitor began in July 2011. Northern Ireland (20.0%), Wales (15.1%) and the North & Yorkshire (14.6%) recorded the highest vacancy rates.
Footfall in the three months to October was 0.4% lower than a year ago, better than the 3.3% fall in the previous quarter, following a similar trend displayed by the BRC-KPMG Retail Sales Monitor.
Footfall weakened on the high street over the quarter with a 0.9% fall, compared with a rise in both out-of-town (0.2%) and shopping centre locations (0.1%). Footfall increased on the high street in August for only the third time since the series began, driven by the Olympics.
The hardest-hit locations in the past three months were the East (-4.1%), the South West (-4.0%) and Scotland (-3.9%). Northern Ireland (14.4%), the West Midlands (4.2%) and Greater London (1.4%) were the only regions to show increased footfall.
"This new high in empty shop numbers really sets alarm bells ringing," Stephen Robertson, British Retail Consortium Director General, said.
"It's the worst vacancy rate since the survey began in July 2011 and confirms that financial challenges for both customers and retailers are far from over.
"Many retailers are battling stagnating sales and rising costs, and next year's threatened business rates increase can only make matters worse. If the Government wants to breathe life back into our town centres and ensure the retail industry can play its full role in job creation it needs to freeze rates in 2013.
"It's a little more cheering to see footfall suffering less than the previous quarter but shopper numbers were still no better than a year ago. The figures follow a similar pattern to our retail sales monitoring. September's cold snap drew the crowds stocking up on warmer clothing. But, while the Olympics appears to have brought people out onto high streets, that didn't translate into a surge in spending."
Steve Booth, CEO, Springboard says: "There is no doubt that October had the most detrimental impact on retail footfall over the past quarter.
"Traditionally October is a difficult month for retailers, as school holidays are over and winter weather sets in, however the year-on-year drop in high street footfall this October was significantly better than the drop a year earlier. Furthermore, the quarterly figure has recovered significantly from the -5.5 per cent decline reported in high streets during the previous quarter, when the UK experienced unseasonably wet weather.
"Though the pace has slowed, the continued decline in footfall could be a factor leading to the 0.4 percentage point increase in vacancy rates. Temporary lets over the festive season may positively affect this figure in November and December and the awareness of increasing vacancy rates has encouraged landlords to become more flexible to try and alleviate this issue, as the heavy rate burden is an ongoing concern for retailers."
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