The transformation of Britain's shops: The high street as we know it is dead

Some 20,000 independent shops are at risk of closing down, a new report warns. Only technology can revive town centres.

by Elizabeth Anderson
Last Updated: 04 Dec 2013

The woes of Britain’s high streets have been well documented. Around 40,000 shops stand empty in the UK, a figure which has little changed in the last three years. Bricks and mortar sales have remained flat over the last five years, while online sales have jumped by 222% – equal to an increase of £18.5bn. At the same time, workers have struggled with rising inflation and flat wage growth, leading to a slump in spending.

In 2011, retail guru Mary Portas was sworn in by David Cameron to save Britain’s flailing high streets. Her recommendations included setting up 27 ‘Portas Pilots’ that shared £2.3m of funding and a £10m High Street Innovation Fund. Yet two years later an alternative report commissioned by veteran retailer Bill Grimsey has said that the self-styled Queen of Shops ‘promised the earth but delivered little.’

Grimsey, the former boss of DIY chain Wickes and supermarket group Iceland, warns that 20,000 shops (47% of UK retailers) are at risk of closing down and we can ‘expect more and more business failures’. Eight household names, including Comet, HMV and Blockbuster, have all collapsed, leading to thousands of job losses, in the last two years, he said. At the same time, the number of pawnbrokers, pay-day lenders and betting shops has risen 17%.

So what can be done to turn to fortunes of the high street? Grimsey, who first started work on his report in March, says technology is the key to saving the high street and we should expect a complete overhaul in the way we see and use our local town centres.

Here are some of his proposals:

  • Town centres should have a community-hub section, with old stores being turned into doctors' clinics, pre-school crèches, and social enterprises.
  • All towns will eventually be ranked in yearly league tables according to their performance, to create "vibrant, healthy towns to help grow the economy".
  • Retailers who open in shops that have been vacant for a year should receive 50% business rate relief for two years.
  • A cloudhosted web platform will be created which allows retail, services and customers to see each other in real-time, respond to mutual needs fast and become an adaptive, reactive network.
  • An application which notifies customers of free parking spaces and generates a parking map in real-time.
  • An application which tells customers of daily deals and events on their high street
  • Direct targeting: The High Street Manager will know from the MAC sensors and CCTV cameras that you are in the area. It will identify you from the On-Street Face Recognition account that  you can chose to opt in for (it will automatically block out  any visitor that has not actively requested participation), and will alert your key shops and services that you are coming, so they can prepare an order in-store.

A Communities and Local Government spokesman said: 'This Government has already put in place a wide range of measures to help towns manage the change in their high streets - we have lifted planning restrictions to bring more housing to the high street, cut business rates for thousands of small businesses and scrapped Whitehall guidance that pushed for higher parking charges.'

Britain's retail industry in numbers:Source: ONS/Grimsey Review

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