The public's reluctance to return to the office or use public transport is having a "devastating effect" on shops in town and city centres across the UK and will lead to more job losses and store closures, the British Retail Consortium has warned.
The latest figures for footfall in August showed high streets are bearing the brunt of consumers' nervousness to return to shops, seeing 41.7pc fewer visitors than the same month last year.
Meanwhile footfall at retail parks - which generally have wider open spaces, a higher proportion of essential shops such as supermarkets, and larger stores which were quicker to reopen - was down 11.1pc year-on-year.
Overall footfall in shops in the UK fell by 34.8pc in August compared to the previous year, an improvement of only 7.3 percentage points on July’s figures.
There was an increase in the final week of the month. The BRC and ShopperTrak, which compile the figures, attributed the uplift to the last days of the chancellor’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme.
Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the BRC, said: "Footfall remained well below normal levels in August. In-store discounting and demand for school wear helped lure some customers back to the shops, but with many office blocks still empty and much of the public avoiding public transport, footfall is not returning to towns and city centres and this is having a devastating effect on the local economies in these areas."
She said that although many businesses have been investing in making workplaces safer, towns and city centres were "unlikely to see significant growth in footfall" while a significant number of people are still working from home.
The government has begun to encourage people to return to the office in a bid to kickstart the economy. Earlier this week, the Prime Minister promised that ministers were "working at pace" with rail companies to launch flexible season tickets for reluctant commuters.
As a result of fewer customers, businesses could struggle to meet their costs, Ms Dickinson warned. "The Government should also recognise that, while footfall is so low, many businesses will not be able to manage their fixed costs – rent and business rates in particular – and unnecessary job losses and store closures will follow."
According to a Confederation of British Industry survey released last week, retail job cuts have surged to their worst level for a decade.
Last month M&S announced it will cut 7,000 roles. Boots, John Lewis and Topshop owner Arcadia have also shed workers this summer.
However, the BRC and ShopperTrak data showed that, compared to its European counterparts, UK shopping has recovered reasonably well, ahead of Germany, Italy and Spain but behind France.