Figures released by Ipsos Retail Performance (formerly Synovate Retail Performance) show that retail footfall in the UK in December was stronger than expected. Ipsos' Retail Traffic Index (RTI) for the month recorded 2.9% more shopping trips to non-food stores compared to December 2010. This is the first time that a year-on-year increase has been seen in over 2 years, since October 2009. Against November, the RTI stood 30.7% higher.
"After such a tough year for retailers, the need for a strong year-end was critical. News of heavy footfall is early evidence that Christmas trading was as brisk as anyone could have hoped for," comments Dr Tim Denison, Director of Retail Intelligence at Ipsos Retail Performance. "Granted, some will say that 2010's 'deep freeze December' makes for a soft comparator, but in fact the month-on-month increase in footfall is the strongest bounce in three years."
The run-in to Christmas started briskly. For w/c 27th November footfall leapt by 11.1% over the previous week. The following week saw consolidation, with numbers growing by 2.4% week-on-week, before surging again over the following fortnight, when week-on-week rises of 9.0% and 16.7% were recorded in the RTI. The busiest Christmas shopping day turned out to be the second Saturday in the month (10th), as it was in 2010.
"Memories of the white-out at the tail end of November into December 2010 prompted people to start their shopping early this Christmas," continues Denison. "The public sector strike on 30th November served as a further kick-start with many stores reported double digit growth that day. But the start of the month would not have been nearly as busy had retailers not embarked on their heaviest promotional campaigns we've seen in years, in a determined effort to fuel footfall and turn up trading. The second key wave in the month came in Christmas week itself, when footfall built up significantly day-on-day right through to lunchtime on Friday 23rd. Much credit should be given to the retailers themselves for making Christmas happen for them this year. I fully expect the rise in footfall to be reflected in the spending figures, but margins will inevitably have suffered."
The first week of the Sales started strongly. Traffic across the UK on Boxing Day was 13.5% higher than in 2010, when it fell on a Sunday, with constrained trading hours. In Central London the London Underground strike hit retailers hard, though perhaps not as hard as anticipated. There, shoppers, more determined than ever to land bargains, defied all odds and matched their numbers of 2010.
Tuesday 27th December, as forecast by Ipsos Retail Performance, was the busiest shopping day of the year, with footfall 0.7% stronger than Saturday 10th December, the pre-Christmas peak day. Thereafter, for the rest of the week, traffic levels ebbed away, indicating that appetites for the Sales are already on the wane.
For 2011 as a whole, the volume of shoppers through non-food stores in the UK was 3.7% down on 2011. The strength of December strengthened footfall considerably for Quarter 4, matching that of the previous year, a significant improvement on the 6.8% deficit in Quarter 3 year-on-year.
"Our prediction of a 3% fall in retail traffic this year proved to be very accurate," concludes Denison. "We had attributed the forecast shrinkage primarily to crumbling consumer confidence and the nation's response to the Government's austerity measures. In truth though, we hadn't foreseen the rise in inflation, which galvanised the behavioural change."