It’s time for fewer but better shops

To paraphrase the chief exec of the BRC, Helen Dickinson talked of fewer but better retail jobs back in 2016, perhaps we now need to talk about fewer but better shops. Its recent research around store closures through 2020 and now in the first quarter of 2021 apparently equates to 1 in 7 being vacant; stress on ‘vacant’, not simply closed.

Retail analyst, Richard Hyman has been trying to get an important point across for a number of years that UK retail is overstocked and I’m with him; if it is really true that we are starting to value experiences over products, then more stuff in more stores is clearly not the answer. And the City of London’s plan to create more homes is a worthy one but if you have ever been in the City after dark, you may decide that this is not really a place to live.

Beats commuting I guess, but homes in cities is unlikely to be a long term answer to redundant commercial property. I think we can get used to the idea of fewer but better shops but what of the shops that remain. All the ideas I have seen around gyms, bars, cafes, social centres, hairdressers etc. seem sensible enough until you see how much rent the landlords are asking and it simply does not add up.

Barriers to progress

They may of course come around but the real villain of the piece is the local authorities. Already strapped for cash, they are unlikely to move on already vastly overpriced rates, amounts that have been soaring over the last 10 or more years. If the spotlight is finally shone on them, they will do their usual appeal to central government for funds, which will not be forthcoming. And then there will be another quango looking into the wrong things and reporting long after the problem has become worse.

There are some sensible suggestions but they are radical. One would be greater pedestrianization. Oxford Street in London for instance could be open for delivery vehicles between 5am and 7.30am, after which people will be free to roam. It could turn the whole area into something distinctive that might justify empty properties being converted to new uses. Public transport abounds in the area – metro stations at Tottenham Court Road, Oxford Circus, Marble Arch, Piccadilly, Leicester Square, Bond Street, and Great Portland Street.

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Of course, Oxford Street is unlikely to suffer in the way other cities are suffering, but making the high streets more attractive to people is going to up the total spend and help the rents hold up. Even the local authorities can play their part by managing traffic flows around these areas and making more parking and park and ride available.

What we needs is schemes that, at first sight, look crazy because there will have to be some serious disruption before retail can reclaim its lost ground.

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