The last shopping weekend before Christmas turned out to be a low-key affair, with business leaders calling for government help as Omicron cast its shadow across Main Street.
Concerns over the spike in Covid-19 rates triggered by the new variant seemed to keep many buyers at bay during what is traditionally the busiest weekend in trade before Christmas.
Oxford Street in London, the capital’s main shopping destination, was significantly quieter on Saturday than during the same festive period in the pre-pandemic period.
The situation reoccurred in city centers across the country, according to the British Retail Consortium (BRC), while online shopping and retail parks remained busy.
Helen Dickinson, Managing Director of BRC, said: “The rise of the Omicron variant, combined with government advice on working from home, has resulted in fewer people visiting stores and shopping streets, especially in large city centers.
“Huge efforts have already been made to ensure essential food and gifts are ready for the holiday season, despite constant supply chain challenges… retailers are doing everything to keep staff safe. and customers in these difficult times. “
The most recent customer traffic data around Bond Street, Oxford Street and Regent Street on Thursday found it was down seven percentage points from the previous week and was 32 percentage points lower than the same day in 2019.
Some stores have already fought back, with Harrods launching its Boxing Day sale 10 days earlier in an attempt to attract more shoppers.
Alex Baldock, managing director of electrical retailer Curry’s, urged the government earlier in the week not to impose restrictions on Main Street, stressing that commerce is better than handouts.
Jace Tyrrell, managing director of the New West End Company representing retailers, restaurants and businesses in the area, said “with the increase in Covid cases weakening consumer confidence and a planned metro strike looming On Saturday, we anticipate a muted final weekend of Christmas trading at a time when businesses in the West End should get a much-needed boost.
He called on the government to provide temporary financial support to businesses affected by new Covid restrictions, which include working from home and vaccine passports for some sites.
Mike Cherry, national president of the Federation of Small Businesses, said as Covid cases skyrocketed “many small businesses, especially in the hospitality industry, are under tremendous pressure as consumer demand declines and that the number of people self-isolating increases. “
Hannah Essex, co-executive director of the British Chamber of Commerce, said BBC breakfast “doing nothing was not an option” for the government.
She said: “What we need to hear roughly now over the weekend, which should have been one of the busiest weekends of the year for businesses, is what they are doing. will do.
“Doing nothing is not an option right now… or we’ll see businesses fail.
“(Businesses have) depleted their cash reserves, their costs are rising dramatically due to the massive spike in inflation, and suddenly, when that should have been the time that would help them get through next year, their customers have just disappeared. . “
She said the last 20 months had been “absolutely brutal for this industry” and then things started to pick up speed, but now “we could see them fall overboard… and will inevitably result in job losses. also”.
Industry leaders met with Treasury officials and Chancellor Rishi Sunak on Friday. Ms Essex said: “We don’t want to see any further restrictions – companies want to be able to continue trading and welcome customers into the New Year – but if there are any restrictions there has to be a set of support for go with this. “