British retailers say closures and job losses still a risk despite lockdown easing

Trade body urges government to deliver on promise to reform business rates to protect sector

Store closures and job losses are a threat to Britain’s retail sector despite an increase in activity following the easing of lockdown restrictions, the government has been warned by the industry’s trade body.

The British Retail Consortium said a pick-up in April as non-essential stores reopened should not be seen as evidence of full recovery and urged ministers to make good on their promises of reform to business rates.

The BRC’s monthly update reported that in the final three weeks of last month, non-food sales were up by about 25% when compared with the levels of spending seen in March, when restrictions were tighter. Non-essential retail opened in England and Wales on 12 April and at the end of the month in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Meanwhile, a separate report from Barclaycard said spending and confidence were both up but a full recovery in hospitality would be delayed until bars and restaurants were able to take customers inside.

Helen Dickinson, the BRC’s chief executive, said: “Many fashion retailers saw an uptick in sales, particularly in outerwear and knitwear, as the public braved the cold spring weather for outdoor meeting and dining with friends. Furniture also saw a boost as consumers can once again try before they buy.

“However, this sales growth is fragile. There is little competition for share of spending while parts of hospitality, leisure, and tourism remain restricted and inner-cities and town centres continue to perform poorly as many people continue to work from home.”

Dickinson said there were 530,000 people working in retail still on furlough, adding that he end of wage subsidies and full business rate relief jeopardised the future of many stores and the jobs of those who depend on them.

“The government must deliver on its promise to reform the broken rates system in their ongoing review and reduce the financial burden on retailers, or risk more unnecessary store closures and job losses.”

Barclaycard said consumer spending grew 0.4% in April compared with the same period in 2019, while confidence in the economy was at its highest level since the onset of the pandemic. Spending in bars and pubs was down by 67% in April compared with April 2019.

Raheel Ahmed, Barclaycard’s head of consumer products, said: “The economy should hopefully gather momentum as we head into the summer and see the reopening of indoor hospitality venues. Yet what is most encouraging is that the easing of restrictions seems to have lifted the nation’s spirits, with many Brits relishing the simple pleasures of dining out and making social plans.”

Contributor

Larry Elliott Economics editor

The GuardianTramp

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