28 May 2013

Going, gone: a fifth of high street shops could close

Buy now while stocks last: everything must go. Going “down the shops” is fast becoming a thing of the past, as a new report warns that one in five high street stores could close by 2018.

High street shopper (getty)

It makes for gloomy reading. A fifth of Britain’s high street shops could close within the next five years, putting tens of thousands of jobs at risk, according to the Centre for Retail Research, which warns that the country is heading for a “serious retail crisis”.

The Retail Futures 2018 report says customers are increasingly shopping online, and many shops are simply failing to adapt to the changing business environment.

It says that the number of shops could fall to just 220,000 if current trends continue, putting more than 300,000 jobs at risk. Local shops could be the worst hit, falling by 26 per cent over the next five years as shoppers head for retail parks and larger town centres.

CRR Director Professor Joshua Bamfield said it was up to retailers to respond to the changing pattern of shopping, including store locations and numbers. “They also need to fully integrate these stores with their websites, smartphone offerings and social media community coherently.”

Mary, queen of the high street?

The retail consultant Mary Portas, who has taken on the task of reviving Britain’s high streets after a government invitation, has brought out a long list of recommendations, along with funding for 12 “Portas pilot” towns to provide help for their regeneration plans.

Professor Bamfield described it as a mammoth task, one which needed to match local enthusiasm with “realistic and well managed plans”. He called on the government to inject £320m into building flats, leisure and business facilities to help attract a broader range of people into high streets.

But some shops have been pioneering new approaches to the shopping experience, harnessing the latest technological advances to give consumers a more interactive, rewarding experience.

Take Top Shop: at this year’s London Fashion Week it partnered with Google to fit a runway model with a real-time camera so shoppers could experience their fashion show from a unique persepective.

At the flagship branch in London’s Oxford Street, a specially designed animated photo booth linked to Google+ was set up, allowing customers to try on their favourite outfits and have their photograph instantly uploaded on the store’s web page, as well as see it displayed in an interactive digital window.

Windows on the world

The London furniture store Heals installed invisible audio devices in the windows of its Tottenham Court Road branch, linked to window displays showing clips from films like Casablanca and Gone with the Wind.

Customers were able to hear the films through the hidden speakers, which played the soundtrack inside and outside the store. Ben Rhodes, the visual display manager, said: “It’s the first time we are launching a window display that can be heard as well as seen, and we really think this will make heads turn.”

The supermarket chain Asda came up with an app which could be downloaded onto a smartphone or tablet device. Customers were invited to zap a series of easter egg logos hidden around stores, which would enable them to collect virtual eggs containing a secret letter.

Once they had collected enough to guess the password, they were entitled to a free gift.

Public space

But it is not just the retail giants which are trying to adapt to the new shopping environment. Smaller shops say they are a vital part of local communities, providing a public space for people to gather and interact.

Catherine Conway, who owns the east London-based shop Unpackaged, said she put customer service as her top priority. “All our staff are really highly trained in our products,” she said. “They can spend time offering advice, suggestions and recipes, which you just can’t get online.”

When I see people chatting to each other in the queue…it’s part of social cohesion. Catherine Conway, Unpackaged.

And she said that shops like hers were about more than simply buying goods: this is all about building social capital. “Most people want a local community, they want to know who their neighbours are, to speak to someone… when I see people chatting to each other in the queue, it’s very important. It’s part of social cohesion.”

There is room for online shopping as part of the mix, she says, but local communities and councils should get more powers to shape the way their high streets look, mixing services with retail stores to attract as many different people as possible.

Labour’s high street spokeswoman, Roberta Blackman Woods, accused the government of failing to listen to local communties. She promised that Labour would devolve more powers locally, along with a temporary cut in VAT to give struggling small businesses a kick-start.

Business Secretary Vince Cable admitted that the retail sector had been through a “very torrid time”, after expanding too rapidly on the back of unsustainable growth. He claimed there were some “moderately encouraging” figures around that showed there was some growth happening, especially online.

Mission to save the high street

And the low cost of starting up an online based business has helped many small entrepreneurs to take the leap. Barrister Marisa Leaf is hoping that her locally based delivery service can combine the ease of online ordering, with some wider social benefits. She is, she says, “on a mission to save the high street”.

Her company, Hubbub, allows groups of local stores to compete with the likes of Ocado, by banding together: subscribers can order food or other goods from any of the shops on her books, and her fleet of vans will take charge of the delivery.

It is the kind of initiative which might allow small, local shops to operate in the brave new digital world where customers who do not want to see their communities wither and die can still get the easy, convenient retail service they want, without having to resport to the major chains.

Experience has shown that businesses which fail to adapt to the new digital reality will struggle to survive. Creativity and innovation are the future: the survival of the British high street depends on getting it right.