Fewer empty shops as UK retail bounces back from COVID

·Finance reporter
·3-min read
UK retail  People walk along Oxford Street, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in London, Britain, July 26, 2021. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls
UK retail vacancies are starting to stabilise after year of record highs. Photo:Henry Nicholls/Reuters

The high streets in the UK had fewer empty shops in the first three months of the year as more city workers back in the office and more tourists out on the streets cut the vacancy rate.

According to figures from the British Retail Consortium, the overall UK vacancy rate decreased to 14.1% in the first quarter of 2022, which was a 0.3 percentage point down from the last three months of 2021.

All locations saw vacancies decline with shopping centre vacancies falling to 19%, down from 19.1% in the previous quarter.

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On the high street, vacancies decreased to 14.1% between January and March, which was down from 14.4% in the last quarter of 2021.

Retail park vacancies decreased to 10.6% in the first three months of the year, a 0.7 percentage point fall from Q4 2021. The figures also show that it remains the location with by far the lowest rate.

“The first quarter of this year saw a large quarterly improvement in shop vacancy rates. The economy had fully reopened, with more city workers back in the office, and more tourists out on the streets. This allowed some businesses to grow and invest in repurposing and reopening empty units, especially in retail parks and high streets,” Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the British Retail Consortium, said.

“Despite this improvement, the overall proportion of empty storefronts remains well above its pre-pandemic levels, especially in the north of England. While many northern regions saw the biggest quarterly improvement, they still have the highest vacancy rates in the country as they were hit harder by the pandemic and have a lower average level of disposable income.

“Much has changed with the cost of living rising and the conflict in Ukraine damaging consumer confidence. It remains to be seen how the increasing costs and the war in Ukraine will impact on businesses and the vacancy rate in the future. While people’s shopping habits have changed, the need for vibrant communities at the centre of our towns and cities has not. Government should look to reform business rates so that businesses can invest in these areas that need it the most.”

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Vacancy rates jumped as the COVID pandemic restricted access to physical retail destinations up and down the country.

“The latest figures show a continued – and welcome – reduction in empty units across nearly all regions in England as well as across both Scotland and Wales, as market recovery continues post-COVID,” Lucy Stainton, director of the Local Data Company, said.

“This decline in vacant space is being driven by further repurposing of retail space, growth in the independents sector and an increase in activity across the chains as well, as many brands are back on the acquisition trail after the pandemic stalled growth.”

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