A low time for British high street

With retailers moving to the internet, town centres are suffering. But some see a chance for revitalization.
Leah McLaren
A low time for the high street
Dirk-Jan Visser/Hollandse Hoogte/Redux

Rub-a-dub-dub / three men in a tub / And who do you think they’d be? / The butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker / All put out to sea!

So goes the classic nursery rhyme, and what a prescient little ditty it’s proved to be. For years now, there’s been despairing talk of the death of the high street in Britain—sad news for a nation that’s historically prided itself on charming villages furnished with independent booksellers, local florists and quaint teashops draped in bunting. But the truth is, apart from a handful of twee postcard tourist towns, the storybook British high street went the way of the dodo years ago. Over the past couple of decades most British town centres have evolved into a parade of the same mobile phone providers, pharmacies, chain grocers and charity shops, so that if you were to close your eyes on the main drag of Bristol and open them again in Blackpool, you might not, for the first few seconds, notice you were anywhere different at all.

Now, however, even these much-criticized “clone towns” are under threat. According to a new report by retail analysts at Deloitte, as many as four out of 10 British shops are expected to close in the next five years, part of a trend that sees retailers moving off the street and online, as Internet shopping gains popularity and renders hands-on browsing virtually obsolete.

Silvia Ridone, director of retail consulting at Deloitte, and an author of a report titled “The Store of the Future,” explains the trend. “It’s partly a reduction in consumer spending because of the downturn. Shoppers are spending less, and when they do spend they’re spending differently—they’re going online,” she said in a phone interview from her London office. “On the other side, the contributing factor for retailers is that costs are going up. Anything from building costs to rent to heating to fuel for transport. So you have these economic pressures bearing down on retailers as well as consumers. As a result, the role of the store is changing, as are the requirements on how many stores a company realistically needs. The reality is, many U.K. retailers simply have too many stores.”

Today the downsizing appears to be as unstoppable as rapid expansion was in the boom time of the early 2000s. In recent months, Sir Philip Green, owner of an apparel empire that includes Topshop, Miss Selfridge, Burton and Dorothy Perkins, has said he will be forced to close one-tenth of his stores (some 260 outlets) if he cannot renegotiate the leases. Closures have already been announced by the chains Carpetright, Halfords and the homeware giant Argos.

By mid-2011, British chain retailers were shutting stores at an average of 20 a day, with 4,000 storefronts closing before the first half of the year was over. Now Tesco, the U.K.’s biggest grocery chain, has announced it will not build any more of its monolithic Tesco Extra stores—a move that shows how both the branded high street along with the newfangled suburban big box stores will soon be consigned to the garbage bin of retail history.

The crisis, which was documented in a government report last year led by celebrity retail consultant Mary Portas, star of the popular TV show Mary Queen of Shops, has culminated in what’s being described as a “downward spiral of decline” for town centres. Another survey said that a third of high streets were “degenerating or failing” because of decreased foot traffic and widespread vacancies.

Portas’s report offers a long list of peppy recommendations, including free or affordable parking in town centres, decreased regulation on open-air market stalls, disincentives for landlords with vacant properties, and the creation of local “town teams” to manage the beleaguered high streets as the civic spaces they are.

Other similarly optimistic proponents of local retail stores foresee in the current decline a bright future for a new generation of independent shopkeepers. Wayne Hemingway, owner of the Camden Market vintage clothing store Red or Dead, wrote in the Guardian last week that he believes the death of clone towns will be a positive development for shoppers and retailers alike, one he believes will usher in “a renaissance of a variation of the serendipitous market . . . the disappearance of large retailers will provide an opportunity for young entrepreneurs to set up in affordable rental shopfronts and market units.”

But less upbeat experts say there’s no point fighting it: the die has been cast and the high street is dead—for now. “The high street will become full of coffee shops, building societies, kiosks and hubs to pick up stuff,” Philip Dorgan, a retail analyst with Panmure Gordon recently told the press. “It’s a different place from 10 years ago and I imagine in 10 years’ time it will be a different place again.”