The health of the U.K. high street

By contributor Sean Carey

So now we know. Mary Portas, the high profile retail expert commissioned by U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron and his deputy Nick Clegg, has just issued her review of the high street after a seven-month consultation. Portas became a household name after appearing in the BBC TV show Mary Queen of Shops in 2007.

She issued a grim warning that around a third of all U.K. high streets are “degenerating or failing.” Three reasons for the decline are:

• the expansion of out-of-town shopping parks by about one-third over the last decade, which has acted as a magnet for consumers keen to avail themselves of free parking;

• the expansion of the major supermarkets into areas like pharmacy and optical services, which were traditionally the preserve of the high street and town center.

• and the growth in Internet shopping.

Mary Portas, pictured here at the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills - has published her review of the future of high street. December 2011. Flickr/bisgovuk
With a “Town Centre First” strategy, Mary Portas, the coalition government’s retail czar makes 28 recommendations, including plans for a “National Market Day”, which would allow budding entrepreneurs to try out a retail concept with the buying public (“Why not rent out tables for a tenner and get everyone involved?”), a relaxation of the rules making it easy to set up street stalls, mentoring of small shopkeepers by larger retailers, and an army of volunteer “Town Rangers” to protect high street areas from anti-social behavior and shoplifting.

Portas wants betting shops to be classified separately by planning authorities so that numbers can be monitored more readily. “I believe the influx of betting shops, often into more deprived areas, is blighting our high streets,” she said. Other ideas include transforming long-term unused retail spaces into gyms, bingo halls and crèches.

As one might expect, the responses are mixed.

Some are very positive. For example, James Daunt, CEO of Waterstone’s, a predominantly high street-based book chain, who recently denounced online retail giant Amazon as a “ruthless, money-making devil” was clearly voting for his own tribe when he commented: “I’ve always believed that booksellers should be at the heart of the communities they serve, and that is exactly what we are doing with Waterstone’s. Mary Portas obviously has a similar, strongly held philosophy and her report holds much sense.”

Others like Evening Standard journalist Anthony Hilton are more critical: “Tomorrow belongs to the internet. Web-based purchases are growing by the day. The car is being displaced by the armchair. Retail parks are struggling, let alone the high street.”

Oxford High Street. Flickr/FlickrDelusions
Somewhere in the middle are the puzzled retail experts, who are trying to work out the dynamics of the interface between physical shopping experiences and purchases made through the Internet. “While there is much discussion of the death of the high street in recent years, ultimately, people want to touch and see things and this is borne out by the growth of Apple’s retail outlets across the UK, for example,” said Anton Gething, co-founder and product director at social commerce experts nToklo. He went on to cite the physical eBay store in central London as well as an interesting experiment by the House of Fraser store in Aberdeen “that has no products, simply free coffee and assistants with iPads.”

Other commentators think that worrying about the fate of the High Street is a waste of time. For example, Margareta Pagano, business editor of The Independent on Sunday, anticipated Mary Portas’s report by suggesting that the proper focus should be on high-value “i-street” employment rather than the defence of traditional, physical retailing space. She argues: “What’s more, the U.K. is actually one of the most sophisticated markets in the world for online retailing, leading the way with the technology as well as the software design and distribution; so we shouldn’t be too worried by the switch from bricks and mortar to online as it’s also creating new jobs.”

The Prime Minister, who accompanied Mary Portas on a walkabout of Camden Markets in north London on Tuesday, announced that the government will respond to the high street review next spring rather than make an instant judgment on its virtues. This is an astute move in a politically fluid situation caused by a sharp disagreement between the two coalition partners –- Cameron’s Conservatives and Clegg’s Liberal Democrats — over Britain’s use of the veto at the recent EU summit on economic integration. The feeling is that the rupture in relationship makes a general election in the U.K. a genuine possibility in the not too distant future.

David Cameron would certainly not want to make an enemy of a high profile TV personality possessing considerable cultural capital if the campaign trail beckons.

See Sean’s article, “What Westfield London reveals about the future of shopping”, in the New Statesmen

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