What’s worrying is that it’s the first time since the peak of the recession in 2009 that more shops closed than were opened. Then again, household spending took its biggest hit in 34 years last year – so it’s hardly a shock.
Depressingly, though, the survey found that while bookshops, electrical retailers and home-furnishings shops were the worst hit, the businesses that increased their floorspace were bookies, pawn shops and credit unions. If that’s not symbolic of hard times, we don’t know what is. And the research also showed that people were increasingly switching to online or out-of-town supermarkets, rather than bother with the hassle of going into town.
But while Portas et al blame the decline of the high street on everything from falling consumer spending to sky-high parking rates, it’s worth pointing out that this isn’t necessarily a recent thing. Granted, the downturn has had its impact on the amount we spend, but high streets have been on the decline for some time. While 49.4% of our spending was on the high street in 2000, that’s now dropped to 42.5% - and is expected to fall to 39.8% by 2014. And a survey by PeoplePerHour.com has also found that small businesses are increasingly going online: apparently, there’s been a 31% rise in the number of small businesses going online-only, while 27% more businesses sell more than half their products online.
Still – there might be a bit of good news on the horizon for shops. Figures from the Office for National Statistics showed retail sales rose by 0.9% in January, far more than had been expected by analysts. Admittedly, much of the driving force behind that was mail order and the internet – but Kate Davies, the ONS’ head of UK retail, said ‘food stores and clothing stores’ had also done well. Could this be the oft-quoted ‘lipstick effect’ at play, where cash-strapped punters buy themselves a cheap treat to cheer themselves up?
This comes on top of strong figures during December, when retail sales rose by 0.6% - so who knows, perhaps some of Portas’ recommendations have already been taken on board by high street retailers. What’s even better is that inflation is also its way down – it dropped to 3.6% in January, from 4.2% in December – so prices should be getting decidedly more consumer-friendly over the next few months. Could a resurgence in spending be coming soon to a high street near you? Here’s hoping.