Shoppers surge back to high streets as Covid lockdown eases in England

Sarah Butler and Joanna Partridge
·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

Shoppers have surged back to high streets across England and Wales as fashion stores, toy shops, hairdressers and other nonessential retailers reopened their doors for the first time in more than three months.

The number of people out and about by 3pm on Monday more than doubled compared with the previous Monday and was just over a quarter lower than 2019 levels, according to analysts at Springboard.

Related: Retail footfall jumps as non-essential shops, pubs and restaurants reopen – business live

Spending in England was up 500% at hairdressers and 2.5 times in shops in the morning, compared with a typical Monday before the pandemic, according to the financial app Revolut. Pubs got off to a slower start – but were still up 150% just before lunch with Romford and Chester seeing the biggest surges.

With snow flurries in some places and cold weather across the country, Springboard said shopping centres reported the biggest rise in footfall followed by high streets.

Shoppers queued outside Primark stores, which were among the first to open in England and Wales, as well as sports shops and the Zara and TK Maxx chains.

Paul Marchant, chief executive of Primark, said: “As expected, stores have been very busy, but we’re more than ready and very confident in the safety measures we have in place. The mood has been incredibly upbeat and positive.”

The crowds spurred hopes of a spending spree fuelled by £180bn saved up after months without nights out, holidays or – for many – a commute to work.

People waiting to buy trainers queue outside JD Sports in Oxford Street in London.
People waiting to buy trainers queue outside JD Sports in Oxford Street, central London. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

About 40 people queued outside Primark on Oxford Street in central London before its 7am opening despite icy weather, but they were outnumbered by young people, mostly young men, waiting outside JD Sports, Footlocker and Nike Town in an effort to buy sought-after trainers to then sell online.

Several of these early morning shoppers told the Guardian that they had been swapping tips on where to go via vast Whatsapp groups.

Diyar Cicek, 19, standing outside JD Sports as flakes of snow fell at 8am, said: “We are trying to make a little cash. No one wakes up at this time otherwise.”

Dillon Chuckisama, 19, the first in line outside Nike Town, said he had been queueing for about two hours and planned to buy up to 10 pairs of trainers that he could sell for about £50 profit a pair via Instagram. Referring to the most-sought-after type of trainer, he said: “Jordans bring money and that’s what makes the world go round.”

Trainer fans also made up a large portion of the long queue that built up at the department store Selfridges, which was almost entirely encircled by people waiting to enter.

At Primark, shoppers said they had queued for bargains for themselves and relatives. “It’s first come, first served and we didn’t want to miss out,” said Esther, 15, who had bought some pool sliders and other summer gear from the chain, which does not sell online and so has been inaccessible since December. “Everyone has missed Primark. I don’t buy online. It just comes wrong,” she said.

People do some early morning shopping in Oxford Street, central London.
People do some early morning shopping in Oxford Street, central London. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

Hollie Blu, 24, and her mother, Caroline Blu, who were both carrying several Primark and Marks & Spencer bags, said they had arrived at Oxford Street at 7am, having walked from Elephant and Castle, about three miles away.

They were surprised there were not more queues. “I needed to get out of my house and have somewhere to go. We need something normal,” said Caroline. “But I noticed there’s quite a lot of shops not here. We wanted to got to New Look, but it’s no longer there.”

The street still remained fairly quiet on Monday morning amid evidence of the devastation wrought by the coronavirus pandemic on clothing retailers. Topshop’s vast flagship store on Oxford Circus was shuttered and Debenhams’ flagship down the road was also permanently closed, making up a run of nearly three blocks of boarded-up shops.

As well as empty stores from collapsed chains including Wallis, Topshop and Evans, retailers including Next and River Island have also closed Oxford Street outlets, contributing to dozens of gaps along the UK’s most famous high street.

Central London saw less of a bounce back than other parts of the country, where high streets in smaller cities and towns were bustling.

From midmorning, the streets of of St Albans in Hertfordshire were busy with groups of friends, families and couples.

The tills were ringing inside the fashion boutique The Dressing Room, accompanied by what its owner, Deryane Tadd, 48, described as the “nice buzz” of having customers back inside the store.

“On the first day of reopening last June there was more trepidation and people were more reluctant. Now they seem more positive and confident,” Tadd said.

Three tables of customers were enjoying lunch and drinks outside the pub and music venue The Horn, where gazebos had been installed in the garden. The manager, Robbie Thomas, 26, said they were “a little bit busier” than he had anticipated because “people are eager to have their first pint back”.

“There are less restrictions than last time we were open, when we had the substantial meal rule and rule of six indoors. It feels easier so far,” Thomas said.

Elsewhere in town, friends Sarah Pearson and Dawn Donovan were celebrating their long-awaited reunion with espresso martini cocktails outside the Alban’s Well pub. “I went swimming this morning too,” said Pearson. “Life is returning, right?”