High street shoppers down amid cold weather and early Easter

The number of shoppers on UK high streets continued a long-term decline in March, aggravated last month by an early Easter and colder spring weather.

Overall footfall across the country's retail outlets dropped by 2.7%, according to the British Retail Consortium (BRC)/Springboard Footfall and Vacancies Monitor, as Easter fell in March as opposed to April, cutting trading days which were lost to public holidays.

The number of shoppers in the five weeks to April 2 across the country's high streets fell further by 3.9%.

The report also blamed colder weather in March, that saw the number of shoppers fall in regions across the UK.

However, overall the long-term footfall trend has fallen for the last 12 months, except in January, which was boosted by the traditional start of the year sales period.

The BRC called on the Government to press on with changes aimed at helping small businesses.

Chancellor George Osborne said in his March Budget that 600,000 small firms will not have to pay business rates, while 250,000 will pay lower rates from April next year.

The chancellor announced he was permanently raising the threshold for small business rate relief from £6,000 to a maximum of £15,000 and increasing higher rate relief from £18,000 to £51,000.

But this month the Government also introduced the national living wage, which will lift minimum hourly pay to £7.20 for over-25s, from its current level of £6.50, and to at least £9 an hour by 2020.

Small retailers say this change will predominantly hit businesses such as theirs, often at the heart of small communities.

BRC chief executive Helen Dickinson said: "The industry stands ready to work with Government to ensure these policies are implemented in a way that achieves Government objectives while minimising the burden on retail businesses."

She added: "The near four per cent decline in footfall on our high streets and in shopping centres is partially caused by the distortion of the timing of Easter.

"It is, however, also a continuation of a longer-term trend caused by on-going structural change within the retail industry."

Sales via online and smartphones take up an increasing share of retail spending.

Ms Dickinson said: "We also know that declining footfall makes it harder to keep shops open and profitable. Areas that are already economically fragile are likely to see the greatest impact of future store closures."

The report said shops in the East and the South East reported the deepest decline in footfall, falling 3.5% and 3.3% respectively. This was closely followed by Wales which saw a 3.2% decline.