After three months of being deprived of a retail fix, it was only to be expected that shoppers would be out in force following the relaxation of lockdown rules in England. Sure, the weather was arctic in parts of the country, but it takes more than the odd snow flurry to dampen the enthusiasm of the consumer to have a bit of a spending spree.
That, at least, is what those businesses that need the physical presence of their customers – hairdressers, gyms, pubs, cafes and so on – are relying on anyway. The hope is that the gradual opening up of the economy will unleash pent-up spending over the coming months.
First signs were encouraging. Bars that opened as the clock struck midnight found plenty of takers for a pint. There were queues outside stores selling trainers that young entrepreneurs think they can shift online again for a quick profit. Perhaps more significantly, footfall on high streets and in retail parks was well up on last week – though still down on the same day two years ago, a long lost time of innocence when pandemics, mass vaccination programmes and needing face masks to enter shops were the stuff of sci-fi movies.
Economists always say that it is unwise to read too much into one month’s data, and that advice applies in spades when it comes to one day’s footfall figures. The real tests will be whether the footfall is converted into actual purchases and whether the initial spurt of activity is sustained.
Households certainly have the financial firepower. In February, the Bank of England said that between March and November consumers accumulated at least £125bn of savings in excess of what they would normally set aside. That figure is now perhaps £50bn higher after another three months of lockdown.
Based on past experience, the Bank estimates that about 5% of the excess savings will be spent: a relatively modest amount in the context of an economy with an annual output of £2tn. Yet, as Threadneedle Street fully admits, past experience is of limited use in such unprecedented times.
There is a possibility that people