As many as 400,000 jobs could be lost in retail across the UK from the shift to online retail and working from home, experts have warned.
A report by consultancy firm KPMG said many high streets were likely to suffer a continued hit beyond the pandemic, with up to 40% of retail stores at risk of closure.
It identified a string of towns and cities as most at risk, including Warrington, Guildford and Hemel Hempstead. Bracknell, a town in Berkshire in south-east England, topped the list of 109 areas analysed as most at risk of retail job losses.
While some high streets have enjoyed a boost from greater numbers of office staff working remotely, KPMG’s research suggests the loss of commuter footfall will do more harm than good for many.
The drain is set to be exacerbated by the boom in online shopping, further limiting many potential consumers’ rationale for visiting local retail hubs.
As a popular area for pre-virus London commuters in office roles, Bracknell is expected to be one of the worst-hit by the lost trade with up to 27.4% of office work potentially carried out from home.
But KPMG’s research strikes a more optimistic tone about the fortunes of major city centres. Many have been hammered more economically by the pandemic so far than local high streets, and estate agents have reported an exodus from busy urban locations since the pandemic hit.
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The new research suggests major cities enjoy a “clear advantage” compared to many towns in their sports, culture and leisure offerings.
“Cities like London, Liverpool, Birmingham and Manchester benefit from a strong cultural offering that partially compensates for the loss in commuter footfall and retail outlets on the high street,” KPMG’s report said.
It suggested towns like Warrington and Basingstoke were similarly hit hard by the loss of commuter footfall, but also by the lack of pull from a more “limited cultural offering.”
The size of London also made parts of the city vulnerable, the report added, noting the gap between the cultural offerings of the West End and office hubs like Canary Wharf.
“It is unlikely that the strength of cultural amenities on offer in one part of the city can compensate for the loss of commuter footfall in a different part, which could test the resilience of some parts of London.”
Some poorer areas like Burnley, Rotherham and Bradford were also among the areas seen as more “resilient,” with a smaller commuter footfall hit from fewer residents in office-based roles.
Yael Selfin, chief economist at KMPG UK, said: “The challenge for government, as it turns its focus to the levelling-up agenda, is to incorporate the changes brought about by the pandemic into its strategy.”