How Preston's shops were under pressure before coronavirus

Preston lost hundreds of retail jobs in just three years, new figures reveal, signalling that businesses in the area were facing challenges before the coronavirus crisis even began.

By Mike Hill
Thursday, 13th August 2020, 7:00 am

Swathes of high street stores have announced job cuts and shop closures nationally due to the economic impact of the pandemic, which has seen the UK fall into the largest recession on record.

Trade association the British Retail Consortium warned some retailers are "hanging by a thread" due to plummeting sales in lockdown.

Office for National Statistics data reveals 8,260 people were employed in retail jobs in Preston in 2018 – the most recent period with available data.

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Flashback to empty shops in Church Street, Preston, last year

That was 250 fewer than in 2015, a drop of three per cent, suggesting that the industry had encountered struggles well before Covid-19 arrived.

Just over two-thirds of local authorities across Great Britain saw a decline in retail employment between 2015 and 2018, the figures show.

Retail made up around nine per cent of all employment in Preston in 2018, with 2,860 jobs based at retail premises in the area's main high streets. The ONS defines a high street as a named street with a cluster of 15 or more shops.

Retailers have been battling the rise of online shopping, with the decline of physical shopping in high streets fuelled by the closure of stores during lockdown.

ONS figures show the economy plunged by a record-breaking 20.4 per cent between April and June, the period covering the height of lockdown, when non-essential shops were forced to shut. It followed a 2.2 per cent fall in the previous three months, forcing the UK into its first recession in 11 years.

Department store giant Debenhams announced this week that it will axe 2,500 jobs across its stores and warehouses in a bid to slash costs after being hammered by the coronavirus lockdown.

It is the latest business to reveal potential job losses, following similar grim announcements from other big employers including WH Smith, Marks and Spencer and DW Sports.

Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the British Retail Consortium, said although there was a growth in retail sales over June and July as businesses reopened following lockdown, many shops "continue to struggle" with a decline in footfall, with many people still reluctant to head to the shops.

"While the rise in sales is a step in the right direction, the industry is still trying to catch up lost ground, with most shops having suffered months of closures," she said.

"The fragile economic situation continues to bear down on consumer confidence, with some retailers hanging by only a thread in the face of rising costs and lower sales."

Labour said workers and businesses in areas with local lockdowns need more support to safeguard hundreds of thousands of jobs, warning that high streets in these areas could become "ghost towns".

The party called for a Hospitality and High Streets Fightback Fund to protect jobs and help struggling firms.

A Government spokesperson said: “We understand the challenges faced by the hospitality industry and the high street. That’s why we’ve taken unprecedented and targeted action with our Plan for Jobs to support people and businesses through the pandemic."