From the Telegraph & Argus
It’s not all doom and gloom on the high street, writes PERRY AUSTIN-CLARKE
THE NEWS that Marks & Spencer, backbone of so many British high streets, is to close more than 100 outlets in the next four years has sent shockwaves through towns and cities across the country.
Following on from a raft of 22 closures earlier this year – including its store in Keighley – and the downsizing of three others, including Pudsey, M&S said its aim was to further reduce its property holdings and to take at least a third of its business online.
The announcements came ahead of its annual figures, which showed its pre-tax profits had collapsed by 62.1 per cent to £66.8 million, with the costs of store closures to date running to £321 million.
M&S has been a stalwart of British retail for more than 130 years. It was formed in 1884 when Michael Marks, a Polish refugee, opened a market stall in Leeds, with the slogan “don’t ask the price, it’s a penny”.
If a firm with such a pedigree – and the love and support of generation upon generation of shoppers – is struggling enough to need such drastic restructuring, where does that leave the future of our high streets?
And M&S, of course, is not alone; the last 12 months or so has seen a whole catalogue of big name retailers with their backs to the wall. The M&S figures came just a day before it was revealed fashion chain Topshop made a £10.9 million loss for the year to August 26, 2017, compared to a £59.4 million profit the previous year.
Toys R Us went into administration in February after failing to find a third-party buyer and electronics retailers Maplin collapsed the same day after talks with potential buyers failed.
The company behind Wine Rack and Bargain Booze also went into administration in April and the owners of the Jacques Vert, Windsmoor, Dash and Eastex fashion brands, that ran about 300 UK in-store concessions, went into administration earlier this month.
Department store House of Fraser has set out a radical store closure plan after a staggering £43.9 million loss in 2017; Mothercare is proposing to close 50 stores and flooring firm Carpetright is also starting a store closure programme amid efforts to raise £60 million in emergency funding.
New Look announced it would close 60 UK stores and cut 1,000 jobs and discount chain Poundworld is planning to close about 100 stores, putting 1,500 jobs at risk.
And there are more. But, to borrow a quote from Mark Twain, rumours that the high street is dead have been grossly exaggerated.
Analysts point out that all traditional retailers have been struggling in the face of rising costs, cautious shoppers and the relentless growth of online competition. The beginning of the year saw the first January drop in consumer spending since 2013 and a four per cent fall in spending on the high street, as many shoppers cut back.
And yet new shopping centres continue to be built, new stores continue to open.
The devil may be in the detail; M&S says it is aiming for a third of its business to go online – which, of course, still leaves a huge number of stores.
It’s all a matter of perspective, says Ian Ward, general manager of The Broadway shopping centre in Bradford.
“There’s an awful lot of life left in the high street yet,” he said. “It’s all about getting the proposal right, both in terms of what individual retailers have to offer and the mix of stores that are available in any given area.”
Mr Ward is also chairing the development board which is campaigning to set up a Business Improvement District (BID) in Bradford later this year, with the aim of bringing in more customers, more investment and more shops.
“For the major chain stores, it’s a question of achieving a balance between physical shops and their online offer,” he said. “People will always want to see, touch, feel and try on clothes, for instance, even if they end up buying them on online.
“It’s far easier to visit a number and variety of shops all in one place to do this, than it is to keep ordering and sending things back until you find the right fit.
“Retailers have to find a way of tying the two together effectively by making their shops as pleasant a place to visit as possible and winning people over to their brand, while at the same time making it as easy as possible for customers to purchase the exact version of the goods they want online if necessary.”
He said town and city centres needed to change to make it easier for independents with their niche offers and specialist products to fill the gaps.
“These smaller businesses can’t afford big online operations so we have to make it easier for them to set up shop in the retail hearts of communities which, in turn, will help to bring more customers in for the big chain outlets,” said Mr Ward.
“That, combined with the cleaner streets, marketing and events and activities that something like the BID can bring, will help to keep our high streets alive for many years to come.”