Cold snap may help internet retailers

Booksellers in parts of the country suffered a dramatic drop in footfall this week as the UK was hit by unexpectedly early and harsh winter weather.

Disruption is expected to continue into the weekend, especially in Scotland and the north of England. David Thompson of Forum Books in Corbridge, Northumberland, said: "I had to dig my way into the shop and things are looking pretty grim. We make 25% of our annual takings in December, but we've only taken half of what we usually would [last] weekend."

A Waterstone's bookseller at Edinburgh's West End branch said customer numbers were down, despite the store's central Princes Street location. "Footfall's dramatically down as transport's been badly hit, especially from the peripheries," he said.

As well as affecting customer numbers, the snow had stopped books reaching stores, said retailers in the north-east. "We've had no deliveries since Thursday morning and it's also affected our mail order service as vans can't travel south to the sorting office," said Tim Wallace, owner of Appleby's Bookshop in Morpeth. "The snow has had a terrible effect on business."

Harsh weather had a marked effect on book sales earlier this year when sales were down 6.6% year-on-year for the first nine weeks of 2010 when the country was hit by heavy snow. Bookshops in the north were worst hit, with sales in Scotland down approximately 13%, according to BookScan regional data.

In London, where conditions are less harsh, shoppers were still expected to stay away. "In weather like this you get a drop in footfall, which is not helpful in the critical trading period. I haven't seen the figures yet, but previously when we've had snow at Christmas, footfall has dropped between 10 and 20%," said Jace Tyrell, spokesman for the New West End Company.

Online booksellers could benefit from the snowy conditions although Amazon.co.uk said deliveries to affected areas could be delayed by two days. Andy Mulcahy, spokesman for e-retail group IMRG, said: "Bad weather does generally have a positive effect on e-retail sales, but during the festive period last year a number of online retailers reported problems delivering Christmas gifts because of treacherous conditions. Royal Mail said that around 5% of its deliveries were affected."
Richard Dodd, British Retail Consortium spokesman, said: "What we have that points to the impact of this kind of weather is how poor the January sales figures were this year—the worst for 15 years.

"There's no way of saying yet what the weather will mean this time. It's not good news that the snow has come this early, and if it went on until Christmas it would be seriously bad news," he added.