Unless you’ve managed to avoid any form of media since the new year, or happen to be from another planet, you can’t have failed to notice stories about the demise of our high streets.
So, let’s consider the facts:
• Online shopping now accounts for around 10 per cent of all retail sales – a figure that will certainly continue to rise.
• HMV, Jessops, Blockbuster, Comet and Republic are all recent casualties of the changing way consumers choose to shop – others will undoubtedly follow.
• Many independent retailers, for so long the lifeblood of our towns and cities, are being forced to close. No longer able to compete against online companies (some of which pay little tax on their ever-increasing turnover) or against the multiple retailers, which have the benefit of economies of scale.
Instead, these small businesses will have to evolve and innovate. Perhaps by developing niche boutique outlets offering a unique customer experience to entice repeat footfall and prosper.
Some have already done so, and are trading successfully today. However, a significant number adopted a ‘head in the sand’ approach and disappeared from our town centres.
There is no doubt that online and mobile shopping will continue to grow. However, let’s keep things in perspective here. Around 90 per cent is still currently traded offline.
A real opportunity exists for those brave or smart enough to adopt a strategy to develop a mixed traditional and online shopping experience.
John Lewis is a prime example of this. There is absolutely no reason why a smaller retailer can’t adopt a similar approach, and in doing so, make additional sales beyond Shropshire.
There have been several ideas forthcoming recently about how to revamp the high street. These range from ‘pop-ups’, which are aimed at actively encouraging start-ups, to the perhaps more controversial idea of turning shops into residential properties, effectively ending the traditional high street altogether. One certainty is that, unless things change, our towns and cities are in danger of becoming uninviting areas of desolation.
Then, let’s consider another factor in this painful demise: councils in the UK raised £411 million in parking charges in the financial year 2011/12. Yes, £411 million.
Indeed, Shropshire Council has recently implemented new Sunday parking restrictions, forecast to bring in additional revenue of £30K per annum – which it thinks is progress!
I read an article recently, quoting a gentleman from the council. To save any embarrassment, I shall refer to him as Derek. He claimed that by imposing Sunday parking restrictions, footfall in town would increase.
How, or why, would footfall increase if there are no businesses left open to visit?
I concluded that Derek, rather like the Daleks whom also had a master-plan which was doomed to fail – is from another world!
Indeed, only in the last few weeks, a music shop in Shrewsbury has closed its doors for the last time. The owners’ parting shot to the council, splashed across its display window in large sign writing read:
“Due to increasing costs, high rates, and the morons who make Shrewsbury’s parking policies and the wardens that enforce them making our customers lives a misery, we have decided to withdraw our business from the High St”
Sadly, proof if proof were needed, that our councils could and should do so much more to help our local businesses.
Surely a good stating point would be to scrap some of the ludicrous parking restrictions – why not encourage instead of discourage?
Invite some of the elected councillors to go and talk to the smaller independent retailers, listen to their views and ideas, and then do something positive to help them.
The French, for example, have implemented a policy for years which protects small independent retailers – supermarkets are not allowed to trade within City boundaries, and in most towns, parking is readily available, and free.
Forgive me for stating the obvious here, but wouldn’t it make more sense to attract people into town, who would then spend more with the local independent businesses, and as a matter of course, improve retail footfall, boost the local economy, which in turn will lead to shops being able to trade successfully, create more jobs, and keep Derek and his cronies happy by producing a far greater sum of money going to the council coffers via the rates?
So come on councillors, wake up – do something about it. Stop hitting the high street, before it is too late.