The volume of shoppers in non-food stores across the UK stood at an all-time low last month (February 2012), according to the latest Retail Traffic Index (RTI).
Compiled by Ipsos Retail Performance since 2000, the Index registered a decline in shopper numbers of 7.8% in February 2012 against the same month in 2011.
One in six fewer trips are now being made by shoppers than before the slide into recession in autumn 2008, said researchers.
Compared with January 2012, footfall was also down, by 9.3%, the sharpest January to February fall since 2007, Ipsos said.
Despite recent optimism about the state of the UK economy from some official and unofficial data, this most recent finding from the Index shows consumers are still feeling the pinch.
Tim Denison, director of retail intelligence at Ipsos Retail Performance, said: “We continue to shop less often. The pain of squeezed real incomes remains entrenched as part of living in the downturn, despite a fall in inflation since its September peak. The 20% rise in petrol pump prices over the last two years is also a key factor; it has curbed the number of daily excursions made to the shops by individuals now used to living in a 21st century car-borne society.
“Promotions, which retailers used to great effect last year, are also beginning to lose their punch in driving footfall into stores. They are simply fading into the everyday fabric of a difficult period for retailing, leaving little else in retailers’ first-aid boxes to nurse shoppers back to health.”
With shopper numbers at record lows, the challenge for retailers is to make every shopper visit count, with the target of pushing up conversion rates and transaction values, said Ipsos. This means avoiding customer disappointment through stock-outs, lack of service and unacceptably lengthy queuing times.
Recognising the importance of raising the customer service bar, some retailers are planning on introducing more assistants onto their shop floors rather than being tempted to cut costs by doing the reverse, said researchers.
The RTI figures for January and February 2012 show retail has started very slowly this year, with shoppers still disinclined to increase the frequency of their visits to non-food stores. This was as expected, but Denison believes 2012 should not be written off too quickly as another annus horribilis for the sector.
“With feel good factors surrounding the London Olympics and The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations, and with summer on its way, we should see more shoppers visiting stores over the coming weeks and months,” he said.