New spending data proves one thing. We need York residents to buy local this Christmas – and beyond

More detailed insights into people’s shopping habits in the city centre can inform our way forward, says York BID Executive Director Andrew Lowson

The last time I blogged, it was about the difficulties of businesses trading in Tier 2. Maybe I should have stayed quiet – since then we’ve had a month’s lockdown and re-emerged into a new Tier 2, with stricter rules than previously!   

Once again, hospitality is going to take a big hit. Personally I do not see the logic of so many pubs, bars and hotels being handcuffed at a crucial trading period; and yet we are then told we can mix with three households for a number of days over the festive period?! I have seen the efforts hospitality have made to be Covid secure; so I am unconvinced this is higher risk than millions of families mixing in residential properties. Feel free to call me a Christmas grinch!

Lockdown mark II certainly felt different than spring. York city centre has seen people out and about.  This seems to be a mixture of remaining office workers; people enjoying café takeaway offerings; and those choosing to take some fresh air and admiring the Christmas lights. 

Even retail is taking the opportunity to do click and collect. We were pleased City of York Council listened to the BID’s request to quickly change the footstreet hours, to allow vehicle access to enable restaurants to offer takeaway services during lockdown.

Covid numbers are dropping in York and whilst we cannot be complacent in the coming months, we are learning all the time about what makes this virus transmit. I still maintain that York businesses did a fantastic job being Covid secure this summer, because York was one of the UK’s most visited cities in regard to staycations and yet our numbers remained low.

What the numbers say

I have long spoken about the need for better information on not only who visits our city, but what they spend. I am pleased to say we now have this information (all anonymous) from Visa and O2.  

The Visa data shows that merchant transactions – purchases made at the till – dropped a whopping 84% in York city centre, from £99m to £15m between Q1 (Jan – Mar) and Q2 (lockdown).  At the same time, online spend rose by 245%!  

The good news for York is that compared to other cities, we had a better recovery. Visa merchant (till) spend in Q3 (Jul – Sept) rose to £106m, which is higher than pre-Covid figures in Q1.  It is worth noting that online spend continued its rise by another 20% from £31m in Q2, to £37m in Q3, fitting the national rhetoric that online has had many converts due to the pandemic. 

Where that spend comes from is what makes this Visa information so informative and tells us about the value of visitors to our economy. When you look at Q3, 35% of the spend came from people living 0-10km from the city centre.  However, 46% of the spend was from visitors who live 50km-plus away. 

We have to be realistic that, until we return to some version of normality, those high spending visitors from further afield will not be coming in their pre-Covid numbers. The fact that York is surrounded by Tier 3 areas means that in the run up to Christmas, we’ll have none of the regular coach trips from the north east, north west or even neighbours in east and west Yorkshire. 

Therefore, encouraging local people to support local is more important than ever. 

Shopping local

The good news for York city centre is that the O2 data dispels the myth that the city ‘is not for us locals’.  By looking at anonymous mobile phone data, we can see that in the week before the October half term break, 74% of visitors to the city centre were from the York local authority area

This figure dropped to 68% during half term as we received visitors from further afield, but this is still a statement of support from those who live closest. 

This information underlines how important it is to spend local where possible this Christmas (and into the new year).  I could repeat endless phrases such as ‘love local’,  ‘use it or lose it’ –  ultimately people will make their own decisions. 

But the BID and partners need to continually highlight the great offering the city has because, if we can encourage local people to stay, dwell and most importantly spend, it really could make a world of difference this Christmas.