Near death on the high street

As I struggled with the pram down my local high street at the weekend, at one stage forced into the road, (I’m assuming my wife will not be reading this) I was struck by several things;

  • a slow moving Fiat Punto (don’t worry, the pram took the brunt of the impact)
  • but more importantly, and truthfully, the sheer volume of traffic, both vehicular and pedestrian.

Granted, I live in a reasonably affluent commuter town, within easy reach of London, but my experience didn’t chime with the various reports that I have read recently proclaiming the death of the high street. A report published last week by PwC and the Local Data Company (LDC), for example, claimed that multiple retailers last year closed more stores than they opened for the first time since 2008, with an average of 14 shops a day closing, with electrical, book, menswear and holiday retailers hit hardest. LDC expects the decline to continue into 2012, resulting in a further increase in vacancy rates. And the British Retail Consortium (BRC) reported recently that vacancy rates were “worryingly high” in many parts of the country and called on the government to reduce business rates, which are set to rise by 5.6% in April.

All valid and based on solid data, and undoubtedly true at an aggregated level, but it brought home the huge disparity in the health of high streets across the country. I mused upon this as I considered where to meet my wife for lunch, in one of the myriad cafes, or perhaps the newly opened Mexican restaurant, You see, my home town, either by accident or design, has developed a strong catering and leisure offer, thereby providing shoppers, or perhaps ‘visitors’ is a more appropriate term, with a reason to dwell (often, I would wager, for half–a-day or more), and ultimately spend.

One size certainly does not fit all, and this leisure / catering centric-model will not work for all town centres. Each town centre must provide a retail offer tailored to the catchment and mindful of the competition, particularly from supermarkets and out of town schemes. There are undoubtedly some town centres that are in a near-terminal state, and only radical thinking and repositioning, involving change of use, will save them. But ultimately, the aim has to be around providing ‘visitors’ with a reason to come in the first place, and then to linger in our town centres, be it through a critical mass of food and catering, the true convenience of the retail offer, stimulating atmosphere and ambience, or most likely a combination of the above.

Now, where did I leave those crutches…