Perfect storm of bad weather and business rates fuels retail crisis

People shopping on Oxford Street in London during wet weather.

 People shopping on Oxford Street in London during wet weather – but many more stayed at home. Photograph: Peter Summers/PA

The crisis on Britain’s high streets showed no sign of easing during the storm-buffeted month of February, while new figures show the number of retail workers losing their jobs this year is approaching 20,000.

Severe rain last month caused a 7.8% fall in the number of people visiting high street stores in February, according to the retail research company Springboard, whereas there was only a 1.1% fall in the numbers at retail parks.

Meanwhile, the latest data, from the Centre for Retail Research, shows that 18,466 jobs have been lost in UK retail up to 27 February 2020, with store closures standing at 1,213.

In January, more than 3,000 retail jobs were lost in a week as baby products group Mothercare and jeweller Links of London closed 94 stores for good.

Last month fashion retailer Ted Baker said it would axe 160 roles as it grapples with declining sales, profits and a £58m accounting error.

Diane Wehrle, a director at Springboard, said: “If further proof of the fragility of high streets were needed, it was provided in February when the impact of the severe and ongoing rain led to a drop in footfall of -7.8%.

“While an average of 17 days of rain across the UK over the month led to shoppers staying away from high streets, shopping centres and retail parks still appealed to many by virtue of either their covered environment or ease of access and proximity of parking.”

She added that while coronavirus did not have a noticeable impact on footfall in February, the month ended before the warning of its increased severity was made.

“Moving forward, it is likely that shopper activity will be stemmed as consumers become more wary about interacting in public spaces,” she said.

The retail crisis has made the calls for the reform of business rates – which will raise more than £8bn from retailers in the coming year – even more urgent in the eyes of the retail industry.

The commercial equivalent of council tax has been blamed for making a bad situation worse, with the new chancellor, Rishi Sunak, reportedly considering fleshing out the Conservatives’ manifesto commitment to carry out a “fundamental review”.

Tony Brown, the former chief executive of the department store chain Beales, has blamed the group’s annual £2.8m business rate bill for scuppering attempts to rescue the 23-store chain, which is now being closed with the loss of 1,000 jobs.