Footfall, Curfews and Data

There have been many outrageous statements made over the last months of the pandemic (and in terms of the subject of this post – footfall – in the months and years prior), but recent offerings have really taken the biscuit.  I’ve railed against the reporting of footfall figures before, but in my view this has now entered a new realm of stupidity and is becoming dangerous, harmful, wish fulfilment, potentially damaging places and businesses.

The heading that caught my eye and got me annoyed was bad enough “High Street footfall plunges after 10pm hospitality curfew introduced”.  What on earth does that mean?  But then there’s the photograph that accompanies it; so obviously a picture of an English high street at 10pm on a late September night – NOT!

Source: City AM

Followed by one of the all-time classic sentences that make absolutely no sense.

“High street footfall dropped sharply last week following the introduction of a 10pm curfew for pubs and restaurants… the government imposed a curfew on hospitality venues from Thursday, which has caused high street shopper numbers to drop”.

What?  ‘Caused’, ‘Shopper’ numbers to drop because I won’t be able to stay in the pub after 10.  Really??

It gets better still: “The ban on pubs, bars and restaurants opening past 10pm pushed footfall down 52.4 per cent after 11pm.  However retail park and shopping centre visitor numbers rose 1.1 per cent and 0.9 per cent respectively”.

Again, what does this mean?  Are the retail park and shopping centres footfall figures comparable i.e. after 11pm?  If not, why are they there?  And why 11pm?  Why not 10pm?  It is almost as though the largest figure possible is being sought so as to confirm a pre-conceived idea.

There can be no doubt that hospitality is concerned about the ban.  There is also little doubt that footfall numbers are not where they were.  Why would we expect anything else?  We are in the midst of a pandemic, there are lockdowns across the place and people are worried and have changed behaviours in work, shopping and leisure.  Comparisons are always to the pre-covid situation, and always positioned negatively, as though pre-covid was some sort of nirvana and the expectation of the levels of activity we should be having now. We should be thinking about what our expectations are, and how we imporve the situation, not mixing up shoppers, footfall and late evening curfews into one mess of a story.

But the press coverage of these figures and the press releases which frame the story (as most press seemed to simply regurgitate them) did highlight one valuable lesson:

Footfall figures are not shopper numbers, and are not retail sales.

The conflation of footfall with shoppers has to stop.  The data have shown clearly these are workers in some cases, drinkers in others, leisure seekers in more, as well as shoppers.  The totality is not shoppers in the retail sense and to conflate these with high streets is equally a false narrative.

Footfall figures have a place in our understanding of activity, but are in serious danger of being mis-used and identified with a dangerous single narrative.  Activity has changed and we need to understand the elvels and the changes. But, we need to understand what lies behind the figures and what they tell us over specific places and longer periods, and not simply strive for the current news cycle headlines.  The constant search for publicity is helping no-one, not least the businesses they report on. The businesses and towns struggling through these unprecedented times deserve better.

This is the first of two posts this week which whilst on different topics have the same base theme: the inadequecy of some of the reporting on retail and high streets during the pandemic

About Leigh Sparks

I am Professor of Retail Studies at the Institute for Retail Studies, University of Stirling, where I research and teach aspects of retailing and retail supply chains, alongside various colleagues. I am Chair of Scotland's Towns Partnership. I am also a Deputy Principal of the University, with responsibility for Education and Students and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh
This entry was posted in Consumers, Covid19, Government, High Streets, Media, Places, Public Policy, Retail Policy, Shopping, Towns, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Footfall, Curfews and Data

  1. John Orchard says:

    Conflation and misrepresentation has been the name of the game for years. I mean what precisely does ‘High Street’ mean. It used to refer to a place. Then somehow it became the shorthand for corporate retailers – the same corporate retailers who had eschewed the place named ‘High Street’.
    So when there’s a report about failures in the High Street it rarely means an actual failure in an actual High Street.

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