COVID-19: Retail pleads for help on costs as crisis blamed for 5,000 shop closures

The retail sector has pleaded for additional help to bring down costs as industry figures suggest that 5,000 shops have been lost, on a net basis, during the coronavirus crisis to date.

The British Retail Consortium (BRC) said one in seven stores were lying empty across Britain by the end of March.

The figures, compiled with the Local Data Company (LDC), showed the overall vacancy rate rising to 14.1% over the first three months of the year, as the last set of lockdowns forced “non-essential” stores to close their doors once again.

By comparison, the vacancy rate stood at 13.7% in the final three months of 2020.

There were increases across the board – with the rate of empty stores highest in shopping centres at 18.4%.

The high street was in line with the overall rate, while retail park vacancies stood at 10.6%.

The BRC used the publication to demand that England follow Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland in extending the business rates holiday for retail until 2022.

It is currently due to end in June.

The industry body, which has long argued that the tax is “broken”, said the continuing review of business rates must result in a permanent downwards shift in costs if remaining shops and jobs were to be better protected.

A Sky News tracker shows retail to have been the sector worst hit by the crisis for employment.

The first three months of the year saw confirmation that two of the biggest names on the high street were to disappear.

Sir Philip Green’s Topshop empire and Debenhams face an online-only future after the remnants were carved up between digital operators Boohoo and ASOS with the loss of thousands of high street jobs.

BRC chief executive Helen Dickinson said of the vacancy figures: “There is significant regional disparity in vacancies, with the North of England showing a greater increase compared with other parts of the country.

“Shopping centres, many of which have been forced to close for a large portion of this pandemic, have fared worse than other retail locations, with over 12% of units lying empty for a year or more.

“With full business rates relief and the moratorium on aggressive debt enforcement ending in England this summer, many stores may never reopen.”

There is some cause for optimism as separate data covering visits to shopping destinations has shown a sharp rebound while store-only operator Primark reported “record” trading just last week.

LDC director Lucy Stainton said of the reopening of shops, bars and restaurants: “The early indications from the first few weeks of the ‘unlocking’ have shown there is still significant demand for physical retail and eating out.

“Hopefully, as consumer confidence continues to build momentum with reduced COVID-19 cases, more of the population vaccinated and warmer weather, further fall out from the pandemic might be mitigated somewhat.”

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