Bad weather and belt-tightening hit the traditional start of Christmas discount sales on Thursday, dealing another blow to a high street retail industry blighted by years of shop closures and insolvencies.
Boxing Day has long marked the opening of the busy festive sales season, but its importance has waned as shoppers have moved online and retailers offer other promotions — such as November’s Black Friday — in the run-up to Christmas.
The spending shifts were amplified on Thursday by a bout of heavy rain that depressed high street traffic across the country, prompting the biggest drop in the number of people visiting shops on Boxing Day for almost a decade.
Springboard, a provider of retail data, said that shopper numbers at 4pm on December 26 had fallen by 9.7 per cent compared to the same period in 2018. While the high street took the biggest hit, with a 13.3 per cent reduction in footfall, shopping centres and retail parks also suffered declines compared to last year.
Diane Wehrle, insights director at Springboard, said the lower figures matched broader trends that were weighing on the post-Christmas sales period. These include changes in consumer behaviour in the period before December 25, as well as the fact that some families are still celebrating on Boxing Day.
“In combination, these changes mean that Boxing Day is indisputably a less important trading day than it once was,” Ms Wehrle said. “In fact, footfall on Boxing Day [morning] this year is 10.9 per cent lower than footfall over the same period on Black Friday.”
Boxing Day figures offer an imprecise guide to trading in the Christmas period. Business typically picks up later in the day and can be patchy, with performance in London often lifted by spendthrift overseas tourists taking advantage of the weak pound. Some retailers such as John Lewis also launch discounts in the days before Christmas.
But the sluggish turnout on Thursday is another bad omen for operators and investors in the retail business, who are carrying the scars from years of decline on the high street.
Retailers suffered another bruising year in 2019, with scores of groups falling into administration, unable to handle growing competition and rising costs. Prominent failures included LK Bennet, the fashion and shoe retailer, Bonmarché and Mothercare’s UK business.
The later timing of Black Friday this year — the shopping day after Thanksgiving — may have had a bigger impact on Boxing Day in 2019, as it came after November pay packets had arrived for many consumers.
Concerns about overconsumption are also expected to weigh on sales this year. While four in 10 respondents to a Barclaycard survey said they expected to shop in the post-Christmas sales, around 62 per cent said they would spend less because of concerns about the environment.
Even so some traditions of Boxing Day have survived the dramatic changes in shopping habits brought by online retail. Many flagship stores still opened to queues at 9am on Thursday, as eager shoppers tried to be first in line for the biggest discounts.
Selfridges said customers were queueing from 4.30am at its Manchester store and from 6am in London. By 2pm on Boxing Day, it said trading was on a par with 2018.
Intu, which owns shopping centres in Cardiff, Manchester and Glasgow, said Boxing Day still remained one of its busiest shopping days for the year. “The post-Christmas sales period is far longer than Boxing Day itself, but people still love the idea of getting out of the house to spend the day with friends and family, looking for deals,” said Trevor Pereira, commercial director.