The more I read about the future of our town centres the more hope I have that they will continue to play an important role in the community – it just takes foresight, embracing change, a desire to be part of that change, and money.
Last week the Centre for Retail Research published its forecast of what the retail landscape in the UK will look like in 2018: ‘Retail Futures 2018’. This report documents statistics upholding the rapid growth of online retail at the expense of shops. The UK has the highest online retail share in the world and is currently forecast to grow from 12.7% in 2012 to 21.8% by 2018. Meanwhile 41% of town centres will lose 27,638 stores (in spite of Mary Portas). The report also points out that consumer spending has increased 12% since 2006 while retail operating costs have risen by 20%.
Looking at the statistics, you would think that they make gloomy reading, but predictions only show what will happen if contra-action is not taken. The future hasn’t happened yet, some trends are clearly irreversible but progress may intervene to swing the statistics in a new direction (e.g arising from the growth of mobile shopping and advent of virtual supermarkets). The good news is that ‘Retail Futures 2018’ concurs with my view and that of many others who responded to my original blog ‘The High Street Manifesto’ – that we (meaning high street businesses, town planners and local councillors, in fact all stakeholders) need to recognise that the change is progress and we can steer the direction of change into one that makes sense for our towns. Already the government has reduced business rates for small shops and handed greater levying control over to local government.
Our town centres are an important part of the community and local economy, creating employment not just for the shops and staff but for ancilliary businesses (IT specialists, financial services, employment agencies, electrical, plumbing and heating services, shop fitters and cleaners, distributors, office furniture and equipment suppliers…). There is property asset in the buildings that house the shops and small businesses. These assets are affected by the economic conditions and a shop closure instantly devalues the whole property. Many of these properties are tied up in pension funds, or are owned by investment managers or even shopkeepers. Maintaining a thriving town centre or high street has a greater impact on the economy than just giving the community a central point to be proud of. Town planners need to get it right with a clear vision of their successful high street and a sizeable fund to achieve it.
I conducted a straw poll of shopkeepers in my high street and found that change for them is already happening. Landlords are waking up to the fact that a fair rent for a fair return makes sense. Some have reduced rent for a period of time, others have maintained rent without any rises for an extended duration. The benefits of lower business rates are beginning to sink in which means greater income reinvested in the business. These all help to give businesses an opportunity to compete with cheaper prices on the internet.
However, every shopkeeper I spoke to complained about parking charges: how shoppers are unable to spend time in the town due to excessive first hour fees, and comparisons with other nearby towns offering free parking or free first hour. There was also the problem of poor service by other shopkeepers. While some place value on creating a positive customer experience, others seem not to care. This problem is widespread and given there is a cheaper, more convenient alternative, good customer service has to be the USP that keeps high street businesses afloat.
A Vision of My Town
There will be some retail – a mix of independents specialist and artisan and multiple retailers with an internet business.Some of our empty shops will be allocated locations for pop-up retail for stores such as M&S, John Lewis, Debenhams etc (attracting national chains is important to increase footfall).
We are a market town and have some great markets including local produce, Italian and French markets. We will increase the number and range of markets carrying produce that doesn’t compete with the resident shops.
Erstwhile empty shop buildings will be converted for use into offices, community buildings and residential premises. This latter is key, turning valuable space into much needed accomodation will address so many issues: it will help with housing needs across communities, it will create a demand for local services and shops, and it will generate a vitality in the town centre 24/7, improving property values in the town and surrounding community. People living in the high street will also attract more restaurants and cafes as well as many other leisure centred businesses.
Let’s start with a positive view of the future for our town centres and offer ideas, support, and action to make it happen. Investment is key to achieving the right sort of change; a townscape that can evolve successfully will require investment and Retail Futures suggests a centrally sourced prime fund of £320millions for the most needy town centres.
Please contribute your suggestions for change required in your high street.