Rise in vacancy rates emphasizes need for business rate reform, BRC-Springboard Footfall Monitor shows


Footfall in October was 0.8% lower than a year ago, up on the 0.9% fall in September, according to the latest BRC-Springboard Footfall Monitor.

Shopping Centre reported the largest decline, falling 1.9%, consistent with the three-month average, while shopping centres experienced a 1.4% decline in footfall, down on the 0.6% fall in September.

Footfall in out-of-town locations fared the best with a 1.9% increase year-on-year.

Scotland reported the greatest rise in regional footfall, up 0.5% year-on-year. The national town centre vacancy rate in the UK was 10.3% in October 2014, an increase from July’s rate of 10.1%.

Helen Dickinson, British Retail Consortium director general, said: “It’s disappointing to see the first increase in shop vacancies since the first quarter of 2013. There had been some hope that the amount of empty shops would dip below the 10 per cent threshold for the first time since we began collecting this data. This has sadly not transpired.

“Encouraging shoppers back to the high street is crucial to reducing the number of vacancies. However, we’ve seen that visitor numbers on our high streets are down again, this month by 1.4%.

“In order to drive up footfall, some local areas need to continue to learn from more successful town centres by encouraging pop-ups, using empty premises as community spaces or even as arts venues to ensure that empty shops don’t become a blight on the local area.

“Consideration needs to be given to how people want to use their high streets now and in the future. Leisure activities, coffee shops, access to local services and the desire for community engagement will be as important as retail as high streets re-invent themselves. Digital connectivity is vital as the lines between online and bricks and mortar retailing become increasingly blurred. We also need to make investment in property improvements attractive again for businesses – the chief way to achieve this will be through fundamental reform of the business rates system.

“We also know that well managed retail destinations whether in or out of town continue to do well in terms of customer visits. We must ensure we apply the same principles more widely in order to encourage shoppers to return.”

Diane Wehrle, retail insights director at Springboard, said: ‘’Footfall has improved only very slightly over the last month which, while disappointing, is not surprising. The entire 0.8% decline in October emanated from high streets and shopping centres – which is likely to be a fall out of the continuing mild weather adversely impacting fashion sales – whilst retail parks continued their charge with footfall increasing for the tenth month in a row.

“However, the modest scale of the decline does need to be put into its proper context of the long term downward trend in footfall in high streets and shopping centres, and it is actually far more modest drop than the decline of 2.9% in October last year. In fact it appears that customer activity levels are stabilising, with an average decline in footfall since January this year of just -0.4% compared with a drop of 1.4% over the same 10 months in 2013.

‘’The slight rise in the vacancy rate of 0.2 % is also not unexpected given the pressures on margins that retailers are facing, and which have been exacerbated by poor sales resulting from the mild weather over the last two months.  More likely, however, it is the first evidence of the impact on retail locations of the large number of retail leases that are due to expire over the period to December 2015. We need to become accustomed to an increasing vacancy rate over the next year as this accelerates, as this will inevitably offer retailers an opportunity to vacate poorer performing locations.’’