Town centres ‘adapt or die’

A piece on the BBC this weekend sites a survey from Experian that indicates town centres will need to market themselves as convenient hubs for picking up products ordered online. From it, “More shops will need to adopt “click and collect” and retailers should embrace mobile commerce and social media to develop their online presence…

Few would argue. Retail growth is thought to be somewhere around half of what it was pre-recession. Back when Gordon Brown told us he’d abolished boom and bust, retailers continued to build their chains on easily flowing credit and a belief in perpetual growth. Out of town become de rigueur and unsurprisingly customers and stores migrated from one to the other. Despite a growing population, both in and out of town aren’t mutually sustainable.

This trend, plus a squeeze on disposable income thanks to pay freezes while dealing with larger utility bills and other inflation, has many saying the country’s high streets are the proverbial dead man walking.

The numbers don’t lie. The convenience of shopping online has seen the UK become a world leader with eCommerce accounting for somewhere around 9% of all retail spend. The net effect of all these changes is nearly 15% of empty store space.

For many towns the high number of empty stores will also lead to the larger chains departing once their leases become due. Newport is a classic example with H&M, Topshop, Dorothy Perkins and Burtons all closing.

JJB look set to be another kidney punch for many retail staff (around 10% of all employment in the UK, incidentally) as the company appears to need a miracle to avoid administration.

Too often we are left with a struggling town market, fast food chains, mobile phone shops, betting shops, charity stores and the offline eBays of the world (Cash Generator et al). Not that the government doesn’t have enough on its plate, but there needs to be a joined up strategy if we’re to stave off this frightening downward trend. Taping up Mary Portas or Lord Sugar hoping to make their next TV series doesn’t cut it for me (although I do agree with much of Mary’s report). Better a Lord Digby Jones character or ex-M&S CEO, Sir Stuart Rose; both have had skin in the game and know all too well where the power lies in bringing about change.

Retailers need to play their part, too. Consumer confidence needs a steroid injection to grow and just opening the shop door and expecting customers to spend their shrinking budgets is as naive as it is stupid. Having a strong and relevant offer, coupled with great service is surely now the minimum standard.

Our high street and town centre spaces need rethinking entirely. There is no silver bullet here; the horse has bolted so we are not, and cannot, go back to where we were pre-recession or pre-Google. Let’s recognise building new just leads to a migration from the existing areas, further extenuating the problem. Forget laying new paving stones or bendy buses for a while and concentrate on what we want our towns to look like in the near to mid future.

Some random(ish) thoughts/suggestions:

– Surely residential has to come and take a percentage of the space. Check out this low income housing we’d all love to move in to;
– Turn some empty stores into lightweight office space that’ll be ideal for micro firms or those at an incubation stage;
– Show the love for local convenience stores (perhaps with a bias against the supermarkets);
– Organise local click and collect hubs;
– Get web positive: return centres, pickup locations, maybe even drive-through customer service centres
– Next generation internet cafés – allow for hotdesking with an element of business support (a kind of mini Regis with social enterprise);
– Increase the customer experience – workshops from local councils or landlords to help retailers raise the bar at speciality, indie and colloquial stores;
– Creating micro/community banks that make use of space plus provide a community regeneration service (granted, funding this is whole new ball of string);
– Tax support – not a hand out – just a non increase in rates (and CPI not RPI tracking),
– Free and fast Wifi for town centres – retailers to leverage and public could enjoy the Starbucks effect of going somewhere for a strong internet connection;
– Bring students into town by showing artwork or innovative projects, give them a chance to make projects not just complete coursework;
– Foster activities for the older and younger population;
– Free (limited time) parking should be explored as it is in many areas on Sundays.

What say you smart folks?

Tags: ,

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply