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The Top Eighty retail locations in Britain?

A consistent theme in retail analysis over the past 12 months has been that, whereas 5/10/20 years ago, a non-food chain required 200/300/500 stores to achieve national coverage, today only 50-80 might be needed.

I don’t think that any one person is the author of this insight (but I’ll credit them if I’m mistaken).  The thinking is as follows:

We now have a network of modern city centres and regional malls across the UK.  These provide up-to-date retail space, with the flexibility in size and height that modern retail chains seek.  By way of comparison, here’s Westfield at White City:

…and here’s a typical mall from the 1980s (in this case, a roofed-over 1960s construction):

The best shopping centres are offering their customers more than ever before; the rest of the field is struggling to keep up.  And a high proportion of the total population is now within 30 minutes drive-time of a first class mall or city centre.

The other motor of change is, of course, online shopping; as this blog far-from-exclusively confirmed last week, the UK leads the world in adopting online retail, with 9% of all sales (by value) going to internet sites rather than bricks-and-mortar stores.

Two of Britain’s strongest retailers, John Lewis and Next, announced their Christmas trading results yesterday, and they underline the trends above.  JLP has had a soaraway Christmas, with its stores anchoring many of the “key 80” locations.  Total Partnership sales from physical stores are up by 9.3%, and online growth has roared away, up 27.9%.  Next’s total sales were up by 3.1%, but this was a tale of two formats; stores were down -2.7%, and online was up +16.9%.  John Lewis has fewer than 40 department stores; Next has around 500 shops.

Of course, different stores have different demographics.  A high-fashion teen chain and a smart furniture business might both prosper with 50 stores nationwide, but their customers wouldn’t all be best served by the same locations.

Nevertheless, in the spirit of digging out a hornet’s nest and poking it with a sharp stick, I thought I’d define 80 primary British locations for 2012.  I’ve grouped them by location type, which I’ll enlarge on as we go along:

All of these centres are well-established, and are pretty evenly distributed across the country.  Metrocentre is the oldest, but their owners continue to invest to keep abreast of consumer and tenant requirements.  With the exception of Merry Hill (now a Westfield), they all sit on motorway junctions, rather than in city centres, and attract customers from a wide geographical region.  Typically these megamalls are close to a retail park, so that big-box sellers of furniture and DIY are also represented.  (And I appreciate that Braehead and Silverburn are different malls in different parts of Glasgow, so I’m already making two count for one…)

Just a few years ago, central London’s shopping offer consisted of the West End and Knightsbridge, with the offer elsewhere pretty strictly local.  Today, a 40 minute ride on the Central Line takes you from one vast Westfield to the other, and en route you pass through (or at least close by) four other huge, separate markets.  The City has evolved from a few poky high street stores on Cheapside to a major retail offer stretching from One New Change to Fenchurch Street (with an appendage out at Canary Wharf), and stores have grown bigger and more numerous in Covent Garden and Knightsbridge/King’s Road.  The West End – from Fitzrovia to St James’s – offers the finest concentration of shopping in the world, and it’s the world that now shops here; increasingly, London caters for a global rather than national catchment, as the old family shopping trips from the provinces to the West End are replaced by crowds of Chinese tourists with their newly enabled credit cards, leading the charge at the Selfridges sale.

England and the Octopus was the title of a book published a hundred years ago by Clough Williams-Ellis, in which he expressed his concern that London, the Great Maw, would consume the countryside around it, growing unstoppably.  At the time, he was probably worried about the rural charms of Dollis Hill or Morden; today, London dominates the economic activity of everything in an eighty mile radius – commuting distance for the capital’s huge workforce.

Much (too much?) of the UK’s wealth is concentrated into this region, which extends from the outer suburbs (Brent Cross, Romford) to the great University cities and the coast.  Many of these towns are smaller than, say, Huddersfield, and some are debatable – is Crawley more worthy than High Wycombe, Newbury or Basingstoke?  Brent Cross is just too small for the Megamall list, and – with expansion repeatedly stalled – is no longer the thing of wonder it once was.

Travelling across the Octopus is often a challenge – only a stark fool would drive the eleven miles from Kingston and Croydon unless his life depended on it – so there are plenty of prosperous shopping hubs; this list only covers the larger and more obvious among them.

A slightly contentious list here, particularly as some of these towns are proper regional centres in their own right – Bath, Chester and York have been important for 2000 years.  However, what all these towns have in common is high tourist spend, and enviable concentrations of local wealth.  Indeed, it’s the history at Aquae Sulis, Deva and Eboracum that ensures the tourists keep coming.

Cornwall is a poor county, but a strong tourist destination – there are national fashion chains a-plenty in small towns like Newquay and St Ives.  The same effect can be seen in pockets elsewhere in the UK – Aldeburgh in Suffolk boasts a Jack Wills, for instance.

This is perhaps the most obvious schedule.  Almost all of the major cities of England, Scotland and Wales have seen huge, strategic redevelopment in their city centres to ensure that they retain their importance.  Schemes like Liverpool One, Cardiff St David’s and Bristol’s Cabot Place have brought new vigour into previously moribund centres; there are still a handful of cities on this list where development has stalled, and there’s the Athens of the North, where the ongoing tram developments might have been specifically designed to keep consumers out.  Nevertheless, these are great cities that can guarantee footfall and spending.  (nb: if I’d included Ireland, Belfast (UK) and Dublin (RoI) would of course be on this list.)

“The Best of the Rest” is an ugly term, and it covers a broad sweep of locations, from affluent Solihull to struggling Stoke.  It’s a list that could easily inflame local loyalties – I haven’t found room for Portsmouth, Taunton, Blackpool or Stirling, but in setting an arbitrary figure of 80, I had to call a halt somewhere.  Some of these locations are significant population centres, but they aren’t generating growth, and their town centres are sorry echoes of their former selves.  Doncaster is here in part because it was Mary Portas’s focus, but it also stands for many other post-industrial towns in Yorkshire, Lancashire and the West Midlands that have seen better times.

And that’s my 80.  It won’t be the same as yours, and it certainly won’t be the same as any particular retail chain’s.  This is a blog, it isn’t science.  Before signing any lease, a good retailer will match careful demographic analysis against their own gut feeling and enterprise; they’ll be looking for the next right place to be, not a town that enjoyed its greatness in the 19th or 20th centuries.  I’ve missed off the outlet parks (Bicester, Gun Wharf), and I’ve largely skipped over the retail parks in places like Broughton, Birstall and Kinnaird – huge destinations locally, but little known outside their catchments.

But – most importantly – getting reductive to 80 underlines the challenges facing the smaller towns.  Let’s travel from Watford to Nottingham on the M1 – 110 miles, passing Milton Keynes and Leicester (shoo-ins for the list) and Northampton (very borderline), but omitting (deep breath) Hemel Hempstead, Luton, Dunstable, Bedford, Bletchley, Rugby, Wellingborough, Kettering, Market Harborough, Nuneaton, Loughborough, Burton… twelve towns among the hundreds that were once must-have locations for national retailers.  They still have stores there, but now, increasingly, they’ll be looking at their leases and reconsidering their options.

Images: overseaspropertymall.com; superstock.co.uk

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3 Comments on “The Top Eighty retail locations in Britain?”

  1. Andy Adamson says:

    Great post Philip. This one covers so much about the social as well as the economic changes in the UK in the last 15 years. I’d assume that the smaller London shopping centres that are outside the rich areas, like Lewisham, Peckham, Camden Town, Ealing etc all fall into the also rans.