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Rearranging the Deck Chairs on the Titanic


Posted At: 10 July 2009 16:12 PM
Related Categories: Finance & Investment Management, Future of Retailing, Retail Property, Retailers, Town & Shopping Centre Management


A quick Google for the term “Save Our Shops” throws up 220,000,000 results in 0.29 seconds. The top results come in from The Evening Standard – championing the capitals independent shops; BBC iPlayer – re-running Mary Portas’ “Save Our Shops” series; and, interestingly, the Portsmouth Today newspaper site – which is covering the issue locally. These are just the top of the pile, for the list of people championing British retail in a vain attempt to rejuvenate the high street is seemingly endless. But why did it come to this?

We all know there is a recession going on – whether it is affecting us or not – but the problems were there before they were compounded by the current financial crisis. The rise of the clone town was being rebelled against; rents were increasing and people were aborting in-town shopping efforts in favour of the easier out of town retail park experience; all issues closely intertwined and ones that we are now facing the consequences of. And so the golden era of “build it and they will come” is well and truly over. If only the planners had listened sooner…

It’s not really fair to blame developers though. Developers, after all, respond to economic indicators which are essentially fuelled by our actions.

An element of greed is at play on both parts, but we should take some responsibility instead of blaming all and sundry.
It wasn’t just the banks – of Iceland, America or the UK - or Labour, Gordon Brown or Tony Blair – that got greedy, it was everyone.
Our celebrity obsession began to influence the decisions and aspirations we made and had; we became a consumer culture, punching well above our weight, and it was unfortunate that there was no ‘Big Brother’ around to say no when we asked for “more sir”. We got given credit that we couldn’t repay; we bought things that we couldn’t afford; and we artificially inflated the growth of the economy to breaking point. Quite literally. So, as an investor, a bank, a developer, why wouldn’t you take advantage? If the statistics are telling you to build, you build, and as our gold plated wallets got larger, so did the developments. Some may say that regeneration and development proposals became so large that town centres could no longer accommodate them, so they were sent elsewhere…somewhere ‘out-of-town’ (sure, it was all political). The clue is in the name. At the end of the day. it’s vain to argue that the capacity is there to support two healthy shopping destinations in one place. In most case, it wasn’t, and the survival of the fittest came into play.

At present, 65% of comparison goods shopping is done in town centres, 45% elsewhere; in 10 years time, it is expected these figures will do a flip turn. Basically, some town centres will die. Will we be upset? For a while…but people don’t like town centres – why would they? They’re not practical, and they’re full of people who hate shopping, so what will we be losing? A sense of community? Not really – when was the last time you went shopping and everybody knew your name? Its sad, but its industrial evolution, and at present, it doesn’t look like it can be avoided.

But, we can try. There are some cool initiatives in place – some councils and regeneration schemes, for example, are planning to buy up empty shops and letting them at a reduced price; resident-owned shops are springing up in an effort to revitalise ‘community spirit’; and entrepreneurs like Red or Dead footwear founders Wayne and Geraldine Hemingway are thinking up new, cheaper ways to bring retailers back to town centres, with things like their rent-free pop-up shops.

All is not lost, but a long hard look at the future is most certainly needed; jumping up and down screaming “save our shops” is not enough. Bandwagons are all very well and good, until the wheels fall off...

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