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Death of the high street

Ten years ago, I set up a board games shop in Bournemouth. Sourcing the games, dealing with suppliers around the world and setting up a website was easy. The hard part was finding and renting a suitable shop.

It took six months to find somewhere and even then, the location was probably wrong. Today, it would be a piece of cake; around a quarter of the shops in Bournemouth are empty, the independent stores are disappearing fast, leaving chain stores, pound shops, money-lenders and charities.

The picture is the same almost everywhere. In the high street, where I live in north London, shops are closing on a daily basis, leaving it looking like a mouth of rotting teeth. Nobody wants this to happen, but nor do we support our local shops, by shopping in them.

A government-commissioned report, in December, showed one in three of Britain’s high streets is failing; 15,000 shops in town centres closed between 2000 and 2009 and another 10,000 in the last two years. Christmas was dire; Argos, Waterstones, Thorntons and Mothercare all plan to close at least a third of their shops.

183 retailers fell in to administration in 2011, up from 165, in 2010 and clothing retailer, Peacocks, was the first chain to fall this year, with the loss of 10,000 jobs.

The economy is partly to blame for the closures, as are ever-increasing rates and rents, but the main reason, is that we have radically changed our shopping habits. Out-of-town shopping centres and the increasing popularity of internet shopping, means retail spending in town centres, has fallen from 49.4%, in 2000, to 42.5%, now.

The stores that did well over Christmas, like John Lewis, are those with a strong e-commerce arm. An old-fashioned sweet shop has recently opened near me and although the proprietor has a web site, it doesn’t actually sell anything; it just gives information about products and location; a big mistake.

Yet, we claim to love our town centres. Mary Portas is the government’s shopping tsar and she has come up with several proposals to stop the rot, including that all new out-of-town developments will require an ‘exceptional sign-off’, by the secretary of state.

Supermarkets are the bane of the independent shopkeeper; the big four all allocate over a third of their floor space to non-grocery items, usually at a price lower than independents can buy from the manufacturers; their purchasing power is immense and they use it to decimate the high street, outselling specialists in electrical goods, music and clothes.
Southampton has a thriving shopping scene, thanks to two mall-like shopping centres, that have been built in the middle of town and Marc Bolland, CEO of Marks & Spencer, says his town-centre shops (200 out of 360), are currently performing better than the out-of-town ones, probably due to high fuel prices.

Local councils can be of help to their retailers, keeping streets clean and safe and increasing parking capacity, while reducing business rates. Centuries ago, the high-street was comprised of shops, employing one or two people, with accommodation over the store, which gave the high street a vibrant sense of community.

It is a relatively recent development to have high streets, just for commercial use and maybe developing and encouraging a mixture of uses, could be the key to survival, but Britain’s shopkeepers face a grim future, trying to tempt us back to the town centres we have abandoned.

Nigel Phillips

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