11 Jan 2023
By Stuart Patrick, Chief Executive of Glasgow Chamber of Commerce
If my own last minute Christmas shopping experiences were anything to go by then I could be forgiven for expecting the data for Glasgow City Centre covering the festive period to be a cause for celebration for everyone interested in seeing our city centre recover after nearly three years of disruption. In the last two shopping days before Christmas Day, I found myself negotiating a packed subway, busy streets and payment desk queues in the shops I picked for last minute presents.
However, we are now beginning to see the December figures on the City Centre dashboard and the picture is sadly more complex. The first detailed report is on footfall and the top-line statistics show that for the full month of December the city centre was still 18 per cent below the pre-Covid December 2019 performance. That translates into 814,000 pairs of feet that have not yet returned since the pandemic struck and is broadly in line with figures we have seen for the past six months.
The busiest Saturday was right at the start of the month on 3 December, with 215,000 people counted in the City. Of course, that weekend was before national train strikes disrupted both the run up to Christmas and the Christmas break itself. The mid-December strikes ran between the 13th and 17th and the data shows that footfall dropped in that week by 112,000 compared to the week before. We estimate that each day’s strike action stops between 25,000 and 30,000 people coming into the centre. The Chamber went ahead with its Christmas reception during that week and, sure enough, half the members originally intending to come had to cancel.
Had the train strikes not occurred, we would almost certainly have seen the city centre getting closer to its normal bustling self but it would still be falling short. Workers are not returning to the office at anything like pre-pandemic rates. On the average weekday lunchtime, footfall is still reaching just 70 per cent of December 2019 levels and that tells us 1,000s of office workers are still at home.
Perhaps the most startling regular report we see is from a property consulting company, which uses a sample of office buildings across the UK in the 10 major cities to track office occupancy. Glasgow’s performance is the lowest of all and roughly half the national average. Given the UK’s performance is itself an outlier internationally it would be worth the effort investigating why Glasgow is so out of line. Sustained evidence on the impact of home working on both individual company and wider city productivity is also needed at the very least to settle jangled business nerves that we may be in the midst of a massive productivity experiment that could yet go either way.
In complete contrast, the footfall figures for the night-time economy have been well ahead of 2019 comparisons. The December total was 122% of 2019 despite the train strikes. This has been the story throughout this year’s recovery process. It has been the hospitality industry that has led the way with Glaswegians increasingly using their city centre to socialise rather than to work.
However, there may yet be good news to come. Footfall tells us only how many people are using the centre. It does not tell us how much they are spending and on what. We will soon get credit card data from Beauclair telling us whether shops saw a fuller recovery in sales than the day-time footfall suggests and whether that extra night-time footfall turned into hospitality business.
Some of the Chamber’s anecdotal member feedback sounds positive and we must hope that turns into a widely shared real result because the new year challenges are significant. The early months are never easy for retail and hospitality. Public transport disruption, cost pressure from wages and supplies, reducing government support for heavily inflated energy prices and the cost-of-living pressure on consumer demand are all lining up to make it incredibly difficult for the businesses that provide so much of our city’s vitality.
This article was first published in The Herald on Wednesday 11 January 2023