Christmas shoppers shrugged off rail strikes but business hurt by Royal Mail disruption

Business

UK high streets do not appear to have suffered a major hit from rail strikes in the run-up to Christmas but business has been hurt by industrial action at Royal Mail, according to separate reports.

Figures from retail consultants Springboard showed a 12.7% leap in visits to high streets during December compared to the same month in 2021.

Springboard said shopper footfall across all retail destinations was almost 10% higher on a year ago, despite a 20% drop in the penultimate week before Christmas that saw disruption from four days of railway strikes.

The data offers hope that Christmas shoppers provided retail and hospitality with a crucial boost despite the disruption to travel and cost of living crisis.

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Could some shops be forced to close?

There was strong evidence to back that up in trading updates from Next, Greggs and B&M on Thursday, which all saw an expansion in their share prices as sales beat expectations.

Thursday also brought data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) that supported complaints from businesses about the impact of strikes at Royal Mail.

It reported that in November – a crucial month for Christmas readiness – that 16% of UK firms had been affected by the action.

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More than a quarter (28%) of those businesses reported they were unable to obtain necessary goods.

Royal Mail’s 115,000 frontline staff walked out that month on days deliberately timed to disrupt Black Friday and Cyber Monday online shopping deliveries.

The dispute, over pay and working terms, also saw strikes wipe out six days in December including Christmas Eve leading to massive backlogs.

There is no end in sight to the dispute, led by the Communication Workers Union.

It has become increasingly personal and entrenched, though no new strike dates have been announced pending further talks between Royal Mail and union bosses.

The separate rail disputes, involving the RMT and Aslef unions, also appear to be no closer to a solution.

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‘Nothing fresh on table’ in rail strike talks

Diane Wehrle, marketing and insights director at Springboard, said: “There is no doubt that rail strikes impact retail and hospitality at the time they occur.

“However, the longer-term impact of the strikes on December’s footfall appeared to be negligible.”

She added: “While many employees worked from home in December due to the strikes, consumers were not deterred from visiting bricks-and-mortar stores and shifted some of their trips away from high streets to shopping centres and retail parks which can be more easily reached by car.”

Ms Wehrle also pointed out that if the strain on household budgets from the higher cost of living was not evident ahead of Christmas, then the risk would be that retail, leisure and hospitality destinations could suffer ahead.

“We should expect footfall in January to be circa 20% lower than in December, which is the magnitude of decline that has occurred in January in every year since Springboard started publishing its footfall data in 2009.”

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