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Retail – the end of an era?

PUBLISHED: 14:49 05 April 2013 | UPDATED: 21:25 05 April 2013

Retail – the end of an era?

Retail – the end of an era?

Having acted for large retailers including SuperGroup and Soho Coffee, Antonia Shield, the retail legal guru from BPE, gives her view on why retail could have seen the end of an era

Retail the end of an era?

Having acted for large retailers including SuperGroup and Soho Coffee, Antonia Shield, the retail legal guru from BPE, gives her view on why retail could have seen the end of an era

The advent of the internet has heralded a new retail age and its fair to say that the retail experts (who I regularly peruse in the weekly pages dedicated to that sector) have spent a few years procrastinating as to how the future will evolve. I think there is clarity emerging now and whilst this clearer trend has been accelerated by the state of the economy it is certainly going to be at the expense of our high streets until we manage to achieve their reinvention Portas inspired or otherwise. Interestingly I understand she is shortly looking at Stroud.

There is no doubt that the large regional destination shopping cities and centres will continue to hold their own. Retailers in these locations recognise the importance of maintaining their presence, investing in their shop window and increasingly putting on a good show to attract new customers both physically and online. The concept of multi-channel selling is here to stay which embraces your conventional shop purchase; your online purchase delivered; your online purchase available for click and collect; your online reservation while you are shopping from your mobile device. Shops are not just where a customer goes to look and buy, but increasingly they need to be a showcase for brand awareness, brand development, availability online and a pick up point for internet orders or online store reservations. Retailers who arent embracing this new flexibility will struggle because all the stats show that the consumer loves it.

So what is the effect on bricks and mortar? In the face of the internet it looks like footfall across our smaller centres nationally will continue to decline and this means that many household names will need to shrink their property portfolio to survive, which in itself will be a challenge for some. We have already seen the catastrophic consequences of a high rent and over-exposure to the economic downturn on our high streets - this trend is not going to change in those smaller towns and cities. I see a gradual shift over time of how the property market in these areas actually operates - much more flexible lease terms are one sensible consequence to help fill the voids although this will do nothing to revive the property investment market which has thrived on secure decent rental returns for many years.

All of the above said, it doesnt have to be doom and gloom for our high streets but we do need some joined up thinking. There is not and will not be the demand to fill our vacant shops. To encourage new uses and ideas we need flexibility and relaxation of certain planning constraints. To encourage entrepreneurial start-ups, we need a radical rethink of the how the rating system is applied. In my view this is the single biggest factor discouraging budding retailers from taking space (because landlords are now becoming more flexible on lease terms that is happening).

The irony is that our local authorities are inadvertently quashing growth in their local economy by the inability to manoeuvre the existing rating system to something which works with, and for, a growing retail business. Retail is also still about footfall and although I hate to say it, because it goes against every sustainability argument around; we also have to get real and provide adequate free (timed) parking to encourage consumers into their local hubs. Nailsworth is a great example of where this works really well.

I firmly believe we are better placed in our smaller towns here in the Cotswolds than virtually anywhere to help maintain thriving centres because of tourism and our relative affluence We can all embrace the revival of the localism agenda and look to support our cottage industries and farmers markets but this is only part of the answer. For our nation to meet and deal with one of the largest challenges facing our lifetime we will need to see some fresh initiatives and change to existing inflexible structures and systems sponsored at government level. If this happens and is coupled with the generation of ideas and plans led at a local level (and that work for each unique community) you may get to the beginning of the answer to the question of how to save our national high street.



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