The start of the Boxing Day sales has been a washout for retailers with the much smaller crowds blamed on a combination of bad weather and rival Black Friday discounts in November.
Shoppers still started queueing before dawn outside shopping centres such as the Trafford Centre in Manchester and branches of high street chain Next. However, by mid-afternoon retail experts estimated a slump in shopper numbers of 10% compared with last year.
Retail analysts Springboard said the 9.9% decline was the biggest drop since 2010’s Boxing Day when the UK economy was at a virtual standstill. Diane Wehrle, its insights director, said there was a chance that the picture could improve if the rain stopped before the shops closed.
Wehrle said: “This result reflects a number of underlying structural changes in terms of how consumers shop with more going online, the increased spending around Black Friday and the fact that the number of blended families means that many consumers are still celebrating Christmas on Boxing Day with their family. In combination, these changes mean that Boxing Day is indisputably a less important trading day than it once was.”
The power of Boxing Day sales has been diminished in recent years due to a combination of internet discount extravaganzas such as November’s Black Friday and the fact that major stores such as Marks & Spencer and John Lewis start their online sales on Christmas Eve. Some reports have suggested that Black Friday spending was unexpectedly strong this year although there have been no official figures yet.
Springboard said high streets had been hardest hit, with visitor numbers down nearly 14% versus a 9% drop in shopping centres and 6% in retail parks. Part of the drop was down to the rainy weather which deters shoppers from visiting high streets which are exposed to the elements, Wehrle said.
No single region escaped a drop in footfall, although greater London fared better, down 7%compared with 17% in Northern Ireland and 14% in both Scotland and Wales.
Another factor could be discount fatigue, say analysts, as many stores have been offering price cuts since November in a bid to tempt out shoppers who were reluctant to spend given the uncertainty around Brexit and the 12 December general election.
But while shopping habits may be changing over time there are still a large number of bargain hunters keen to make the most of the bank holiday. The property firm Intu, which owns the Trafford Centre and the Metrocentre in Gateshead, said it expected more than 1 million people to visit its malls today.
Indeed the first shoppers arrived at Manchester’s Trafford Centre at around 4am – two hours before the stores opened – with big crowds also reported outside Next branches around the country. Next does not cut its prices pre-Christmas so its promise that clothes will be “at least half price” still draws huge crowds of loyal shoppers.
The number of Britons heading to the shops on Boxing Day has now fallen for four years in a row. A big factor has been competition from the virtual high street, with online now hoovering up around a third of spending on clothes and gifts in December.
Despite its waning popularity Boxing Day’s sales are still huge with analysts expecting a total spend of around £4bn. The big headline figure masks a sea change in shopping behaviour with £3.2bn to be spent in physical stores – down 12% on 2018, according to analysis by VoucherCodes and the Centre for Retail Research. By comparison online spending is set to rise 10% to £1.1bn.
A separate survey by Barclaycard had also predicted Boxing Day spending would be down after seeing a huge surge in transactions on Black Friday. Rob Cameron, chief executive of Barclays Payments, said: “Our data for Black Friday and Cyber Monday revealed a huge jump in transaction volumes this year, so it’s not surprising that consumers expect to have less money to spend after Christmas.”
While mainstream chains are struggling, top-end stores such as Harrods and Selfridges continue to prosper amid a growing number of “ultra-rich” Britons – and an influx of well-heeled tourists. Selfridges said its winter sale had got off to a flying start with sales on a par with last year – which was its biggest ever trading day.
Michael Ward, managing director at Harrods, said Boxing Day would be among the 170-year-old store’s – where shoppers had to spend £2,000 before their child could visit its Swarovski crystal-encrusted Santa’s grotto – busiest days. Monday and Tuesday were also huge trading days, amid a late dash to the Knightsbridge store for gifts. Ward said: “We had a really good Christmas, this year will be ahead of last.”