Bring me sunshine: Shoppers back on high streets

Improving weather last month has help sales picture and resulted in a drop in retail property vacancies. Picture: Donald MacLeod

Improving weather last month has help sales picture and resulted in a drop in retail property vacancies. Picture: Donald MacLeod

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Warmer weather drew shoppers back to Scotland’s high streets in April and helped retailers open more stores, pushing the vacancy rate further below the UK average.

Figures released today by the Scottish Retail Consortium (SRC) show a 1 per cent rise in shopper footfall overall last month, with high streets seeing the lion’s share of the extra visitors. The year-on-year increase was a marked improvement on March, when footfall fell by 5.2 per cent.

High streets enjoyed their strongest performance since December 2011, with 3.4 per cent more visitors year-on-year.

Footfall at out-of-town shops rose 0.3 per cent, while shopping centre visitors fell 3 per cent.

SRC director Fiona Moriarty said Scotland’s retail recovery appeared to have a more solid grounding than that of the UK as a whole.

“It’s reassuring to see footfall back in positive territory,” she said. “Scotland didn’t see as much sunshine as some areas further south towards the end of April, so it’s all the more positive to see that footfall is in line with the UK average in spite of the delayed onset of milder weather.

“Taken in tandem with last week’s sales figures and a rise in consumer confidence in Scotland, there are very tentative signs out there that the public mood and spending power is improving.”

However, Moriarty cautioned that the latest figures were just a “snapshot over a short period of time”.

“The key will be maintaining the momentum over what continues to be a very challenging year for customers and retailers,” she added.

Meanwhile, the vacancy rate in Scottish retail spaces edged down marginally on the previous quarter, taking it further below the UK average. The vacancy rate north of the Border now stands at 10 per cent, down from 10.2 per cent at the start of the year.

That is in sharp contrast to the wider UK, where high-profile retail failures such as Comet and Jessops have knocked holes in shopping centres and caused unfilled units to surge to a new high of 11.9 per cent.

British Retail Consortium (BRC) director general Helen Dickinson said it was a major cause of concern, especially as some regions like the south west of England saw a significant leap in empty shop numbers.

The south west, Wales and Northern Ireland were the only areas to see shopper numbers decline, while most of England mirrored the trends seen north of the Border.

Consumer appetite was strongest in the greater London region, where spring arrived in style to fuel a 4.2 per cent rise in footfall.

However, some clouds remain on the consumer horizon as a think tank warns the squeeze on household spending power is set to continue, and is already harming Britain’s economic recovery.

The Ernst & Young Item Club estimates that high inflation knocked almost 3 per cent off UK growth in the last three years, and says consumer price inflation is unlikely to dip below 2.5 per cent before 2017.

Its latest report warns that by the time temporary factors such as a rise in tuition fees have fed through the system, underlying inflationary pressures will have started to build again.

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