The same can be said for the broader high street. Yes, high street footfall was up 2.6pc across the UK last week, according to data provider Springboard. In Greater London, the figure was double that. But hold the celebrations. In the centre of the capital, where there is a high concentration of office workers, levels are still half what they were last year. For the rest of the UK, visitor numbers are off by a quarter.
Perspective is everything. Primark was floored by the crisis. When the last of its stores closed on March 22, sales went from £650m a month to zero overnight. Yes, turnover since restrictions were lifted is set to hit the magic £2bn mark by the end of the year, and profits will be at the upper end of the City’s drastically revised predictions, but, at £350m, the bottom line will still come in just under two thirds off the £913m recorded in 2019.
The UK high street has served the chain well but it is clearly beginning to look further afield more seriously now, encouraged no doubt by the diverging fortunes of its hundreds of stores. Those in retail parks are performing strongly but its high street shops remain decidedly below par. Overseas expansion is being stepped up with another 700,000 square-feet of space earmarked for Spain, the US, Italy, France and other countries, to add to new outposts in Paris, Warsaw, and Strasbourg.
But there’s a bigger point that is in danger of being missed. Primark isn’t just any ordinary retailer. It has always been an outlier, and basic economics says that its cut-price fashion, which has always been popular, will be even more of a hit during a vicious downturn. Its improving fortunes provide a glimmer of hope but nothing more than that.
Slice of luck
On the face of it, a deal to close 77 restaurants at Pizza Express will do little to transform its prospects. After slimming down, it will still have 400 UK sites, including thankfully my local one at South Woodford.
Food snobs wouldn’t be seen dead in Pizza Express but I speak from personal experience when I say, for parents with young kids, it is about the best of the many big chains that still clutter up the high street.