Retail triage: can we really save every British high street?


There is a great deal of talk, and has been for some time, of the “death of the high street” in the UK, with many high streets across the country now experiencing high rates of vacancy and diminished public use.  In recent years we’ve all seen some of the UK’s best-known brands disappear from our town centres – Woolworths and HMV to name just a couple.

In response we’ve seen planning policies and development strategies for these areas focusing on filling vacant units with more shops and making them vibrant places to shop. But is this the right approach and can every high street really be treated the same?

Experian’s analysis of vacant shops using our GOAD data has revealed that higher concentrations can be found in certain types of centre and high street.  Overall we found that places are more likely to have high levels of shop vacancies if:

  • They are a large town or city outside of London and the South East, such as Nottingham, Leeds or Liverpool. Here there is typically 27 per cent more vacancy on average.
  • They are a smaller town with a lower social class catchment. Examples of these centres include Nelson in Lancashire, Felling, Tyne and Wear, Kirkby and Sunderland. In these locations, there is 30 per cent more vacancy on average.

By contrast, our analysis shows there’s likely to be a low level of vacant shops:

  • In places that have affluent catchments; Vacancy rates are 30 to 40 per cent less in places such as Chelsea and Kensington for example than the national average
  • In the Major Malls; The Metro Centre and Trafford Centre have a vacancy rate 50 per cent less than the national average
  • In Central London; for example Shepherds Bush and Victoria Street typically have 30 per cent fewer vacancies
  • In Airports; There are around 50 per cent fewer vacancies than the national average in airports such as Stansted and Luton

It is the difficult combination of lack of demand and over supply compounded by behavioural and structural changes in shopping patterns that has led certain locations to be over shopped.  Many initiatives have done their best to fill these vacant units but perhaps it is time to consider alternatives to shops.

Perhaps, in view of this, it is time to consider retail triage and classify our high streets into one of three categories:

  1. Those that are likely to survive, regardless of what attention they receive;
  2. Those that are likely not to survive, regardless of what attention they receive; and
  3. Those where immediate attention might make a positive difference in outcome.
    There is strong reason to use such a classification for our high streets to help determine what actions are likely to be successful in that area and to act accordingly.

This means facing up to the reality that not every high street can be saved with retail.  Pretending that they can is an arguably narrow view of these locations and is limiting, as some areas will simply cease to be viable as shopping destinations.

Experian’s work with Town Teams in partnership with the Association of Town Centre Management (ATCM) has made it clear that many are concerned with the shrinkage of retail space on the high street, and accept that in future some of this space will be best dedicated to different uses.  In particular, there is interest in developing high streets as social destinations, and much of this space may lend itself to leisure or community uses.

Other suggestions include using space to support local traders, helping them grow and create employment opportunities. This of course will require a change in mind set from all town centre stakeholders, not least local authorities and property owners.  Some significant issues will need to be addressed including high rents and rates, the flexibility of the use class system, and the problem of absentee landlords. However using redundant retail space for more innovative and alternative uses is certainly preferable to leaving them empty and risking a spiral of decline.

Of course, for some high streets, action should be taken to revive them and in these cases resources must be concentrated. In others they will already be winners and we should ensure that they continue to do so by supporting them if needed.

Our treasured high streets are not lost, but they are in a state of transition.  There is a need to be open-minded yet pragmatic, and to examine each high street individually.

If you have any questions about Experian’s work with Town Teams and the Association of Town Centre Management, or about the retail sector in general, please get in touch with me.


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