A shop assistant wearing a protective face covering organises a window display inside a shop on Oxford Street in London.
A shop assistant arranges a window display on Oxford Street in London, in October. More than 300,000 non-essential stores are closed due to Covid restrictions © Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images

More than 176,000 retail jobs disappeared in 2020 and a larger number of losses are expected this year as shops continue to struggle under lockdowns, a retail research group has warned.

The Centre for Retail Research has estimated that up to 200,000 jobs in retail could vanish in 2021 as pandemic-related restrictions on movement continue hitting footfall and sales in physical stores.

Joshua Bamfield, director at the research group, said the forecast was based on the impact of closures on cash flow, adding that the “longer-term effects of the greater use . . . of online retailing is likely to be hugely damaging for physical stores”.

The growing popularity of online shopping has hit many brick-and-mortar retailers, with shops on UK high streets shedding jobs for years.

The downward spiral has been accelerated by Covid-19, with the total number of retail jobs lost in 2020 up by almost a quarter compared with the year before, according to the research group.

High streets have been particularly badly hit with restaurants, bars and other hospitality businesses that attract people closed for long periods during 2020 to try to reduce the spread of the virus.

The most recent closure of non-essential retail and leisure groups hit businesses particularly hard, as it coincided with the traditionally busy Christmas season. More than 310,000 non-essential shops are currently closed in England, as are nearly 65,000 pubs and restaurants, according to real estate data provider Altus Group.

Unprecedented difficulties following the pandemic have prompted cries for help from the industry, with specific demands including VAT relief, an extension to the current business rates holiday as well as other types of direct support for businesses forced to shut their doors.

A joint report by KPMG and Ipsos Retail Think Tank on Wednesday warned there were “very tough times ahead” for retail, with large parts of the UK likely to remain under lockdown for months.

Paul Martin, UK head of retail at KPMG, pointed out that some pandemic habits such as the “work from home revolution” could benefit local high streets as more metropolitan workers remain in their hometowns.

The question is how many businesses will remain long enough to adapt to changing consumer habits. Large companies such as Dixon’s Carphone Warehouse and J Sainsbury’s Argos have already announced the closure of hundreds of stores across the country.

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