Shop numbers fall by almost 10,000 as pandemic devastates the high street

The number of chain stores in the UK fell by almost 10,000 last year, as the coronavirus accelerated the decline of the high street.

New figures from PwC and the Local Data Company show that 17,532 shops shut last year and only 7,655 opened, meaning there was a decline of 9,877.

The rate of closure is almost 10 times faster than that seen five years ago, but experts have warned that the full effect of the pandemic is yet to come, as some stores deemed to be ‘temporarily closed’ during lockdowns are unlikely to return.

Major chains such as Debenhams and Topshop went out of business during the pandemic, while John Lewis and House of Fraser have both warned in recent week that they are likely to close more sites.

The rate of closure was seen most starkly in London – in a reversal of recent trends – while regions including the South East and North West of England also fared badly.

There was a major drop in numbers of chain shops in cities such as Glasgow and Edinburgh, but smaller towns fared better as more people worked from home and shopped in their local areas.

Lisa Hooker, consumer markets lead at PwC, said: “For the first time, we’re seeing a widening gap between different types of locations: city centres and shopping centres are faltering, but certain retail parks with the right customer appeal are prospering.

“Location is more important than ever as we see a reversal of historical trends – for years, multiple operators have opened more sites in cities and closed units in smaller towns.

“As consumer behaviours and location preferences change, partly as a result of Covid-19, retailers are moving to be where they need to be,” she continued, adding: “Small towns will remain important but we can expect recovery in cities as workers and tourists return, albeit in smaller numbers adopting more flexible working models.”

The research found that city centres are faring worse than suburbs and commuter towns, and shopping centre shops are twice as likely to close as retail parks.

While big cities have suffered, suburban areas and commuter towns have fared better. There have also been fewer closures in seaside towns.

Lucy Stainton, head of retail and strategic partnerships at the Local Data Company said: “With the restrictions in place during each of the three national lockdowns, only around 17% of the market was classed as ‘essential’ and thereby permitted to trade.

“However, the damage to footfall in some city centre locations and particularly in London meant that a number of chains opted to temporarily shutter their stores irrespective of their ‘essential’ status.

“These numbers only include store closures we know to be permanent and when government support schemes end, we expect a further increase in store closures before the picture starts to improve.”

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