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UK retail footfall down 85% over two months, Google data reveals

Guardian Technology 03 Apr 2020 04:52
Mid-afternoon at Exchange Square in Manchester. Most areas in the UK recorded a spike in footfall followed by a slump. Photograph: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Footfall at British retailers is down 85% over the past two months, according to location data gathered by Google, with some areas effectively coming to a complete halt as the government’s lockdown hits.

Visits to retail and recreation establishments in Rutland, Britain’s smallest county, were down 100% compared with the pre-February baseline, while four other areas – Bath and North East Somerset, Midlothian, Nottinghamshire and York – all recorded drops of 90% or more.

However, the data suggests the sight of bare shelves could be coming to an end: at grocery and pharmaceutical shops there was a large increase in footfall at the beginning of last month, peaking at almost 30% by mid-March, but in the last two weeks the trend sharply reversed, with the retailers seeing huge drops in traffic – 46% nationwide – despite being exempt from the lockdown.

That pattern, of a spike followed by a slump, is common across almost the whole nation. But some areas bucked the trend: in Dundee, for instance, there was almost no increase in foot traffic to grocers, suggesting the panic buying that swept the nation bypassed the Scottish city. Conversely, Thurrock in Essex had one of the largest spikes, topping out at 40% higher than normal, and one of the steepest falls with traffic now down 53%.

Google’s data also enables international comparisons: the US, for instance, is far behind the UK in encouraging widespread physical distancing. Retail and recreation is down just 47% there, while grocery and pharmacy visits have fallen 22%. But the car-centric nation has recorded a proportionally steeper decline in public transport use, down 51%, suggesting more Americans were able to cut back on that than on shopping.

The company said the reports, which cover almost the whole world – with China a notable exception – “will be available for a limited time, so long as public health officials find them useful in their work to stop the spread of Covid-19”.

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