Did Freedom Day backfire for the high street?

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Date: 24 August 2021

A couple shop in an empty shopping mall

The government is accused of scoring an own goal over Freedom Day as it emerges that July's retail figures fell.

The latest Office for National Statistics (ONS) retail sales figures have revealed a 2.5% decrease in the amount of goods sold during the month, significantly below the 0.4% sale growth that had been forecast by retail analysts. The ONS data shows that non-food stores reported a fall of 4.4% in sales volumes in July 2021 when compared with June 2021.

The end of COVID restrictions on so-called Freedom Day on 19 July was supposed to boost July's retail sales, but it appears that anxious shoppers stayed at home to avoid the spreading Delta variant.

Research by ParcelHero showed that more than two-thirds of consumers (68%) wanted mask-wearing and distancing measures retained after 19 July. It says it warned the government as early as 9 July that its plans to relax COVID measures would backfire because "it did not listen to shoppers' fears".

ParcelHero's head of consumer research David Jinks said: "July's retail sales figures are a train wreck that we saw coming. Over the previous few months, customers had regained confidence about shopping safely in the high street. All that progress has now been derailed. Ending COVID restrictions as Delta variant cases began to climb was always going to lead to this."

ParcelHero had warned that "the end to mask-wearing and queues outside stores will restore the optics of normality, but these are the very measures that will enable the virus to spread faster than ever… It's a move that could well backfire as consumer confidence tumbles."

Meanwhile, online sales grew again in July by 0.3%. Jinks said: "The ONS conjectured that people skipped shopping because of England's run in the Euro 2020 football tournament. However, we believe that Freedom Day was an own goal that ended the high street's return to form. If there's ever a return to the cycle of COVID precautions, we hope that the government and retailers have learned a valuable lesson.

"Customers who were successfully lured back to the high street earlier in the summer now need renewed assurance. We do think it can happen. Our research indicates online's current 27.9% share of all retail is a little high and will settle down at 25% over the next few months. But that's only if retailers successfully integrate safe in-store shopping with online options."

Written by Rachel Miller.

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