LONDON — Far from stockpiling essentials ahead of Brexit, British consumers have been shunning stores and counting pennies, according to the latest figures from Springboard, which measures U.K. retail footfall.
On Monday, Springboard will publish numbers showing that last month was the weakest February in the past five years, with footfall falling by 2 percent in the four weeks from Jan. 27 to Feb. 23. In the corresponding period last year, footfall fell by 0.2 percent. February also marked the 15th consecutive month of footfall decline in the U.K.
Springboard added that high-street footfall dropped by 1.9 percent, marking seven consecutive months of weakening. In retail parks, the number was down 0.8 percent, a severe decline compared with last year when it grew by 1.4 percent. Shopping-center footfall was down 3.4 percent, compared with 0.9 percent in 2018.
Diane Wehrle, Springboard marketing and insights director, said the 2 percent decline last month was unusual given that it was the hottest February on record, while schools were closed for the usual late-winter holiday.
Helen Dickinson, chief executive officer of the British Retail Consortium lobby group, said that consumers have been cautious in their spending, and that February’s figures echo the month’s poor retail sales figures, “which saw weak growth, particularly in brick-and-mortar stores. While real incomes have been rising over the last year, the uncertainty surrounding Brexit appears to be driving a ‘needs-not-wants’ approach to shopping.”
She added that “things could get a lot worse unless the government is able to avoid a calamitous no-deal Brexit. Such a scenario would likely result in higher costs, higher prices and less choice for consumers, all of which would further harm struggling retailers. The government must act to protect both consumers and retailers by ensuring there is no chance of a no-deal Brexit.”
The Springboard figures come at the start of a critical week for Britain and Brexit: Over the next four days, parliamentarians will finally decide how — or whether — Britain will leave the European Union on March 29. The week could also see Prime Minister Theresa May step down if her exit deal is rejected for the second time.
In January, May suffered a humiliating, historic defeat, when members of Parliament shot down her Brexit proposal, amid disagreement over the future of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, which is part of the EU.
Since then, she’s been attempting to work with EU leaders on an amended plan, but it remains unclear what sort of concessions May has secured from the EU, and she looks set for yet another defeat.
If members of Parliament back May’s deal in a vote scheduled for the evening of March 12, the U.K. will leave the EU as planned, and both sides will have until December 2020 to set out a permanent trade agreement.
If parliamentarians reject the deal, then the U.K. will be on track for a “hard,” or unmanaged, Brexit on March 29. A hard Brexit will likely cause immediate, short-term problems with cross-border trading, movement of people, tariffs and disruption to businesses that have not made plans for such a scenario.
Additionally, if parliamentarians reject Tuesday’s deal, they’ll have another vote on Wednesday about whether to pull a no-deal Brexit off the table. If they do manage to reject a no-deal Brexit, they’ll gather at the House of Commons one more time, on Thursday, to vote on whether to delay the withdrawal date, which could potentially create even more uncertainty for businesses.