Determined shoppers return to England’s high streets

High streets, shopping centres and retail parks across England opened their doors on Monday for the first time in more than three months as the cold weather failed to put off the more determined shoppers.

The Trafford Centre in Manchester started the day relatively busy with crowds beginning to build as shoppers arrived mainly by car throughout the morning.

In London, however, there were no signs of the large crowds common on Oxford Street in pre-pandemic times, with a select few outlets targeted by early risers. Most people access the capital’s shopping areas using public transport.

Non-essential retailers are among a number of sectors, closed since lockdown was imposed in England in early January, allowed to reopen on Monday. Hairdressers, gyms and beauty salons can also resume trading, while pubs and restaurants can start serving customers outdoors, if they have enough space to make it commercially viable.

Trainers were one of the most sought after items. Kian Patel had set himself up with camping chair and Thermos flask outside Selfridges in the Trafford Centre at 6am. The 20-year-old was looking for new trainers and did not want to miss out. “You can get shoes in store you cannot get online. They have the latest releases.”

Kian Patel at the Trafford Centre on Monday © Anthony Devlin/FT

By opening time at 10am there were around 50 people queueing outside Selfridges, mostly young people hoping to buy the latest shoes by Nike or Adidas. Many clutched bags from JD Sports and Footlocker, which had opened earlier. But the longest queues were outside Primark, which does not have an online operation.

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In London, a smattering of snow was not enough to put off self-professed “sneaker head” Dardan Smith, aged 20, as he stood in a queue for Nike Town that he had joined at 8am, three hours before the doors were due to open.

Oxford Street, usually bolstered by the thousands of foreign tourists now absent because of travel restrictions, was much less busy on Monday morning compared with pre-pandemic times but early UK-wide figures gave retailers some hope.

Footfall across all UK retail by 10am was down just under 15 per cent, compared with the same day in 2019, significantly better than any period last year when restrictions were lifted when traffic levels never recovered beyond about a quarter below pre-pandemic levels, according to data from consultancy Springboard. In retail parks the picture was even brighter with footfall up almost 13 per cent on 2019.

The hard-hit bricks-and-mortar retail sector is hoping for a surge in spending as people across the UK are estimated to have amassed savings of £180bn as a result of the various lockdowns since the pandemic hit in March last year.

Sue Peters: ‘I like to see and touch the things I buy’ © Anthony Devlin/FT

Sue Peters, 52, had travelled 30 minutes from Warrington to the Trafford Centre. Stepping in from the cold to the large atrium filled with palm trees felt almost like a holiday, she said. 

“I like to see and touch the things I buy,” she said. “You don’t know what the quality is like online.” Like many, Peters has saved money during the pandemic. She kept her supermarket job and was unable to spend on meals out and holidays. 

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“I hope people spend in the shops,” she said. “In Warrington there are quite a few shops closed in the mall. It is a real shame.”

The Ali-Ather family have cancelled their summer holiday and are renovating their home instead. Parents Raana and Ali favoured a trip round home furnishing stores. Their son Yusuf, 17, could not see the point, highlighting a generational divide in shopping habits. “You can buy everything online,” he said. “I know what I am looking for before I buy it.” 

Raana, a doctor, 48, said she spent too long posting back online products that were unsuitable. “You need to see things before you buy. We thought we might as well make a day of it.” 

Back on Oxford Street in London, Dardan said he wanted to buy Jordan-1 retro highs because they can be almost twice as expensive online. “I’ve saved loads over lockdown and if I see more stuff I like then yeah, I’ll keep shopping,” he continued, sandwiched three-quarters of the way down a queue of 150 mostly young people outside Nike Town.

Employees outside the store said they were under pressure from the local council to open early in order to clear the pavement. Jason Adgekunl, 17, had also braved the cold in search of a fresh pair of trainers: “I can’t feel my toes, maybe some Jordans will help”.

Customers wait outside Nike Town in Oxford Street © Charlie Bibby/FT

Tanaka Mhakayakora and Jesiah Green, both 20, had already visited Westfield shopping centre in west London and said they felt “reassured” to shop by falling hospital admissions. “Everyone’s masked up, looking sensible,” said Green. “The vaccines are out, which makes me feel confident.” 

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Things were more subdued elsewhere on Oxford Street. There were just 20 people waiting outside H&M and a handful of punters waiting outside the Apple Store nearby. 

Down the road, the queue for Primark was 50 or 60 people deep at 6.45am, when it first threw open its doors. “Honestly, we’d been expecting more,” said Murad, a security guard who did not want to give his surname.

Around the corner, among the luxury outlets on New Bond Street, there was similarly mixed picture. There were just two people waiting behind the ruby red and gold railings set up outside high-end jeweller Cartier.

Although it was looking busier for Hermes, where a queue of 30 had built up by midday. Next door, by the equally congested entrance for Louis Vuitton, Xio Hao, 22, said he was in the market for a new bag, and was willing to spend “about” £2,000.

“After this, I’ll go to Chanel, Dior and Fendi,” he said. “I’m glad to be out again.”



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