I was always of the opinion that the retail market had polarised between the high end and the discount/value end, which were performing well in their respective positions, and it was the mid-market retailers like M&S and Debenhams who were struggling.
The mid-market retailers are struggling, but now with the total collapse of Pound World it seems that even the value end of the market is not immune to our changing shopping habits.
And changing they most certainly are.
I remember that it was not many years ago that my wife and I would head to a city or out-of-town shopping centre and have a few hours of retail therapy. BUt, now I only go shopping for specific items that I cannot get online. And when I say online, in most cases I am referring to Amazon.
Amazon is so good, too good, really, and far too easy. But, it is so convenient and they always have what I need, and with Amazon Prime it’s free, next day delivery. Multiply the online shopping value across the country and we’re talking of hundreds of millions of pounds being diverted away from the high street every year and I would say that the trend will continue and more shops will close.
So, I have now revised my view of the world of retail in the UK. All sectors are under threat and I think that the division is actually between the high street and out-of-town centres. Out-of-town centres have become destinations in their own right; they offer free parking, they’re indoors, they offer a wide range of restaurants, cafes and bars, and in most cases there are also multiplex cinemas.
On the other hand, the high street is far less appealing. Parking isn’t free, there are quues to get into the centre and then you’re faced with an increasingly desolate landscape, as more and more shops close down. Yes, there are good restaurants in city centres and still a wide range of retailers, but in so many town centres around the country, the life has all but been extinguished.
So, what can be done. I don’t think the high street will ever be the same again and I don’t believe that campaigns to regenerate town centres with independent retailers will work. For one, the rents and business rates are so high, which is why we have so many charity shops (who have no wages to pay and most items are donated) and why the coffee chains have moved in.
You also have to pay for parking, which for most cash-strapped councils provides essential income. If they reduced the cost of parking or had free parking that would encourage more pople to stay in towns for longer and spend more locally, but councils are not that far-sighted and see every car parked as cash in their bank.
The solution to the boarded-up shops is to re-think the town and city centres. With a shortage of housing it seems to me that the empty shops could easily be converted into apartments and houses. People living in such centres would be more likely to go out and shop ocally, and they would be able to walk to their local pub or restaurant. It may not arrest the decline of the retail sector, but if town centres become more leisure focused with an influx of people you may start to revive the central locations that after 6pm become ghost towns.
There may also be a demand for small office units for start-ups and smaller businesses who would prefer a town centre location, which would be another good use for empty shops, but either way the town planners need to get their thinking caps on and think outside the retail box to redefine and reinvigorate town and city centres.