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A showroom with a view – the future of high streets

Frankly, you could cancel most of the drama series on TV nowadays and instead stream a live tale of everyday retailers into the nation’s homes.  Tesco, Peacocks/EWM, Game, Iceland and many others are all delivering stories of real tragedy (job losses), hubris, separation and (in Malcolm Walker’s case) triumph.

It’s edge-of-the-seat stuff, and today’s sensational news of Richard Brasher’s exit from Tesco is just the latest exciting plot twist.  Furthermore, this is interactive experience, as customers are the ultimate arbiters of who succeeds and who fails.

It’s also a tale of legacy and inheritance – too many stores in the wrong places, old management styles or an immature multichannel offer all presage disaster ahead.  Stand by for next month’s Titanic metaphors…

Last Friday’s Retail Week devoted several glossy pages to a gallery of multichannel leaders from across the sector, representing companies as diverse as Harrods, Sainsbury’s and Wickes.  In a very short time, “multichannel” is moving towards “omnichannel” (thanks Gareth), as consumers move faster than stores to blend their online, mobile, and bricks-and-mortar shopping activities.  The customer is always right, and – frustratingly for both parties – the customer is now often several steps ahead of the retailer.

The more this snowball gathers speed, the more quickly prescriptions about the high street become out-of-date.  So here are a few thoughts, wrapped around a simple statement:

Showrooming is here to stay

At least it is for as long as the showrooms can remain open.  But the ease with which customers of all ages have embraced comparison shopping, and the unemotional way they’ve ditched their old loyalties in favour of better value in tough times, has come as a nasty surprise to many retailers.

You spend years building your brand, extending your storebase, cementing a reputation for value and/or service and then, without so much as a Gerald Ratner speech, the whole house of cards is blown away, and the company is left not with a proud legacy, but a horrible mess of bank debt, unprofitable shops and over-complicated management structures.

Nevertheless, customers enjoy showrooming, and no large retailer can succeed in the future without an integrated offer that recognises stores are showrooms.  It needs to have few enough of them, in cost-effective enough locations, for the whole P&L equation to add up.  John Lewis Partnership (reported last week to be investing £450m in “growth and multichannel leadership”) will build its JL and Waitrose online offers, not as “alternative stores”, but as an integrated part of their consumer offer.

Companies with an optimum number of stores can integrate their online commerce/service offer with bricks and mortar and move forward.  But – and this painful – not enough stores are being closed, yet.  This in large part is due to the challenges leaseholders face when managing their real estate legacy – leases are long, penalties are onerous, and landlords are struggling to see where replacement tenants will come from.

Winners and losers

Leaving the food sector to one side, I envisage a future where large, successful chains, selling unique merchandise, are able to sustain a reasonable sized store-base, with customers using the brand’s services through any combination of physical and virtual contact points.  These companies will be able to leverage their use of technology to stay ahead of their competitors, but they must always look forward.  Retail legacies are of no more real value than the beautiful company histories that retailers used to commission – interesting for the archivist, irrelevant to the customer.

This means embracing technology that has the capability to kill much of your bricks and mortar offer – because if you don’t close down your weakest branches, someone else will shut down the whole lot.

As an example, one techology that has been talked about and tested for a long time is the virtual changing room.  This is a great gadget for boutiques – but can you imagine the fractious queue for the magic mirror in a small provincial Top Shop on a wet Saturday afternoon?  Much more efficient to provide the technology as an app that customers can use through their online-enabled 42″ TV screens in the privacy of their own homes.  I can easily envisage “magic mirror parties” at home – much more fun than a chick-flick.

Winners will run forward with new applications, and will be unsentimental about store closures.  They’ll have uniqueness on their side – must-have products available nowhere else.  Physical shops will still matter, but they won’t be required in the numbers that they have been historically, adding weight to the “fewer, better stores” trend.

There will be more losers.  If you’re selling branded merchandise available from multiple suppliers, if you’re selling products manufactured in the Far East and sold, unchanged, around the world, if you’re selling a product with limited touch-and-feel qualities, if you’re selling generic or commodity products, then the road ahead is a very thorny one.  Is marrying Comet and Game likely to be a good idea?  Rephrasing the question, and assuming (rather rashly) that both business’s unwanted legacy real estate can be disposed of, are the brightest and best within Comet and Game able to focus on a future in which physical stores are just a part (a small part), and leading-edge technology will enable them to sell more products, more effectively and more profitably, than Amazon?

We have moved on very quickly from dead record shops and dying book shops.  Any sector, any shop, that cannot provide a vivid reason for customers to continue to shop there starts to look like a showroom for online brands to exploit.  (Shortly afterwards, it looks like an empty store.)  But does this mean (roll of drums) the Death Of The High Street?

I think not.  It means the radical reshaping of the high street, though, and without getting all butchers-and-bakers-and-candlestick-makers, it does mean combining the best of the past with the most desirable elements of the future.

It means far fewer shops – 20% less, 30% less?  The number will vary depending on the prosperity and lifestyles of the local customers, or the effectiveness with which that high street (or shopping centre) can act as a regional or national magnet.  But the good town centres of the future will either be local, or super-regional – in-between won’t stack up anymore.

It means a high street which (as the supermarket chains have figured out) provides the staples you need in a hurry, and (as the best independents have figured out) a choice of goods that you simply can’t buy anywhere else.

It means a high street that provides entertainment, community, and relaxation – not one where hours are spent in unpleasant shops, buying commodity goods.  There’ll be more meeting up (facilitated by phone, of course), more coffee, more chat; more escapism, more novelty, less stress.  Because there are fewer shops, there’ll be less traipsing.  Parking provision might even improve (well, I can dream – though more shoppers’ buses would be welcome).

Manufacturers will run showrooms – if the value chain in many categories has eliminated the margin a physical retailer requires, then technology companies, for instance, will have to follow Apple’s lead and provide opportunities for consumers to see their goods, prior to buying them at the best price from whichever online supplier works best for them.

So the future of the local high street becomes a blend of entertainment, uniqueness, staples and showrooms.  Customers would appreciate this, but it would require some categories to disappear completely, and others to reinvent themselves.  Can the retailers, the landlords and local/central government – if government post-Portas is paying attention – do this, or will too much business transfer to Amazon before the necessary changes are made?

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The Portas report: it’s a great start, but we need local power, not national edicts

After a week of mixed news from the high street (all is well at Moss Bros and Sports Direct, but things are grim at La Senza, Blacks, Peacocks, HMV…), we have had time to digest the Portas report on the future of our high streets.  This has garnered thousands of column inches, most of them soaked in olde English gloom, and offering up a hundred reasons why little can be done, or why consumers really prefer the mixed offering they suffer today – after all they’ve voted with their feet.  Most commentators agree that parking charges should be lower, and thereafter, everyone diverges.

In part, this is because of the Portas Effect.  It’s easy to paint Portas as an underqualified media star, plucked off the telly by a prime minister seeking to curry popular approval, but who lacks the experience or influence to deliver a report that will really make a difference.  Many retailers will recall (with a shudder) her fall from grace at Channel 4, whereby the engaging advice/”reality” pep-talk she gave to independent shopkeepers on BBC Two was replaced with megaphone stampedes and questionable attacks on retail chains at the C4 theatre of cruelty.

But I would urge you actually to read the report.  It doesn’t run like a government paper, drafted and redrafted into flaccidity by middle-ranking civil servants; it rings with Mary Portas’s voice.  Sometimes Portas may be unconsidered or quick to judge, but she writes with a passion and commitment that is sadly missing from most government-sponsored publications.  She writes about high streets, not with the dry authority of the great and good, but with verve and imagination.

This doesn’t make all her proposals good ones, and nor does it mean that implementing them would solve retail’s problems and create community hubs in every town in the country.  But it exposes – for this reader, at least – the extent to which centralisation stifles our neighbourhoods.  My personal view is that the real challenge is not the extent to which this or that idea is practical or worthwhile; it’s whether we, as communities and as an electorate, might prefer greater local control and accountability over the strategic direction of our town centres – and indeed, over much other public provision.

The Portas Report breaks down its recommendations under a series of headings, which emphasise that this is about more than just shops.  I’ve added in a few responses of my own.

Vision:

To breathe economic and community life back into our high streets.

This is actually the most difficult thing to define.  What is a “high street”?  I’d say it’s the centre of a community, offering a number of mixed uses – pubs, banks, surgeries, churches, launderettes – as well as shops.  It can be urban, suburban or rural; a local centre or a county town.  It can run on a medieval street pattern or a new town grid.  It might – thinking laterally – be centred on a properly-provisioned retail park, providing there is a broader community provision and universal access.

On that basis, the biggest city centres don’t count – people commute into London’s Oxford Street from around the world, but they don’t go there looking for 70w light bulbs or pints of real ale.  Tesco shut down on Oxford Street, it’s that unhighstreety.   The same applies to some extent to the centres of Glasgow, Manchester and the like, which are city centre equivalents of Westfield or Bluewater.

A high street needs a community generating economic activity in its own best interests, and it’s important not to get London-centric, as much of the capital can look after itself more effectively than most of the rest of the country, thanks to the concentration of wealth and power.  Marylebone High Street is terrific, in an eye-wateringly chi-chi way, but this is down to a single landlord working constantly to balance the retail mix; few other locations have its advantages.  Good high streets/community hubs really matter when they’re the only option you’ve got; I have five proper high streets within a 30 minute walk of my house, including two major centres, Kingston and Richmond.  A great many people across the country have just one, a drive or three bus rides away.

The implementation of the Portas report needs to be focussed on the Dunstables and the Camberleys, the Rotherhams and the Morpeths.  Getting these right isn’t just about having “nice shops” – it’s about ensuring that communities function economically and socially, rather than as dormitories or places of last resort.

It also needs to recognise that plenty of communities just don’t have what we might describe as a “town centre”.  Bleak suburbs in places like Basingstoke have no connection to their downtown mall; had they developed on the London pattern, over many centuries, they would have many high streets, but being built in one M3-driven splurge, there’s nothing there but supermarkets, trading estates and roundabouts.

Then there’s this sort of thing – the legacy of a previous age of optimism.  Pictures are of Cumbernauld, the planners’ dream and the reality.

Getting our town centres run like businesses:

1.  Put in place a “Town Team”: a visionary, strategic and strong operational management team for high streets.

2.  Empower successful Business Improvement Districts to take on more responsibilities and powers and become “Super-BIDs”.

3.  Legislate to allow landlords to become high street investors by contributing to their Business Improvement District.

4.  Establish a new “National Market Day” where budding shopkeepers can try their hand at operating a low-cost retail business.

5.  Make it easier for people to become market traders by removing unnecessary regulations so that anyone can trade on the high street unless there is a valid reason why not.

I’m in favour of this group of recommendations.  Of course, market traders travel around – they can’t be everywhere on the same day; but more, and more vibrant markets would be welcome.

The Town Team needs teeth, though.  There are some terrific traders’ associations around the country, but their agenda isn’t always the same as the local council’s, and neither has the legal powers to make the sort of radical changes needed.   (Many councils also lack the vision and the will, but that’s another matter, see below.)

Getting the basics right to allow businesses to flourish:

6. Government should consider whether business rates can better support small businesses and independent retailers.

7.  Local authorities should use their new discretionary powers to give business rate concessions to new local businesses.

8.  Make business rates work for business by reviewing the use of the RPI with a view to changing the calculation to CPI.

9.  Local areas should implement free controlled parking schemes that work for their town centres and we should have a new parking league table.

10.  Town Teams should focus on making high streets accessible, attractive and safe.

11.  Government should include high street deregulation as part of their ongoing work on freeing up red tape.

12.  Address the restrictive aspects of the ‘Use Class’ system to make it easier to change the uses of key properties on the high street.

13.  Put betting shops into a separate ‘Use Class’ of their own.

I’d like to see governments free up councils to make things happen – at the moment, our local authorities have little real power, and it shows in much of their decision-making.  Making high streets accessible, attractive and safe (number 10) means ensuring that there is a variety of uses bringing life to high streets throughout the day and into the evenings.  Too many are either dead after the shops close, or no-go zones after the pubs and clubs open.

Levelling the playing field:

14.  Make explicit a presumption in favour of town centre development in the wording of the National Planning Policy Framework.

15.  Introduce Secretary of State “exceptional sign off” for all new out-of-town developments and require all large new developments to have an “affordable shops” quota.

16.  Large retailers should support and mentor local businesses and independent retailers.

17.  Retailers should report on their support of local high streets in their annual report.

I probably diverge at this point, as I don’t believe playing fields of this size and variety can be levelled (unless the whole country is handed over to the de Walden estate).  It should be the job of local councils, businesses and communities to create the environment they want, rather than the job of central government and (multi)national businesses to make life easy for them.

Defining landlords’ roles and responsibilities:

18.  Encourage a contract of care between landlords and their commercial tenants by promoting the leasing code and supporting the use of lease structures other than upward only rent reviews, especially for small businesses.

19.  Explore further disincentives to prevent landlords from leaving units vacant.

20.  Banks who own empty property on the high street should either administer these assets well or be required to sell them.

21.  Local authorities should make more proactive use of Compulsory Purchase Order powers to encourage the redevelopment of key high street retail space.

22.  Empower local authorities to step in when landlords are negligent with new “Empty Shop Management Orders”.

23.  Introduce a public register of high street landlords.

Landlords are every retailer’s favourite bogeyman, but it would be good sense to make empty stores an unattractive prospect for their owners.  However, many communities simply have too many shops, and I’d support creating more residential space, or offices/workshops for small businesses, away from 100% prime pitch.  It isn’t so long since every high street had workshops on it – the blacksmiths are of course long gone, but sadly so are many of the garages/repair shops, craftsman jewellers, hardware stores and so on.

Giving communities a greater say:

24.  Run a high-profile campaign to get people involved in Neighbourhood Plans.

25.  Promote the inclusion of the High Street in Neighbourhood Plans.

26.  Developers should make a financial contribution to ensure that the local community has a strong voice in the planning system.

27.  Support imaginative community use of empty properties through Community Right to Buy, Meanwhile Use and a new “Community Right to Try”.

Portas writes about the seemingly wilful destruction of Ely in her report, where the council and developers created exactly what the townspeople appeared not to want.  I’d like to free councils up to make more imaginative planning decisions, and ensure that communities can hold them to account for doing so.

Re-imagining our high streets:

28.  Run a number of High Street Pilots to test proof of concept.

OK.

Let’s assume that there is some desire in government to implement some of these recommendations.  (That’s the risk of hiring TV stars, rather than judges and civil servants, to write reports.)

Most governments talk about returning power to local authorities and communities; most governments have a conflicting and overriding desire to centralise and control.  Local authorities today are pretty impotent – the bulk of their funding comes directly from central  government, their scope to raise local taxes is capped, and, as a consequence, much of local politics is drivellingly petty, with little changing (apart from the ongoing implementation of central government dictats) from one party’s term in office to another.  About the only area where local authorities have free rein is in managing traffic and parking, which is why it can seem so much easier to get away with, say, burglary, than with overstaying a parking meter by five minutes.  [Sorry, slight attack of the Daily Mails there.]

There is a way (neither quick and easy, nor cheap and uncontroversial) to revive our high streets, restore civic pride and focus local government on commerce as well as welfare and education, and that’s to give councils broader fund-raising capabilities.  This may be through uncapping the rates, or by implementing a local sales tax (with a reduction, not necessarily an equal one, in national taxes), or  through issuing local bonds.

Of course, a greater fund-raising remit requires democratic accountability.  Mayors and council leaders shouldn’t be honorary positions, they should (as we have seen in London and a random bag of other towns) be elected political leaders with real powers.

This is, of course, risky – very risky – for any national government to pursue.  Real local accountability leads to the creation of local power bases that conflict with national party leadership (Ken Livingstone, Boris Johnson).  Real accountability means that things might get worse, not better – there would be more of a “postcode lottery” in a world where, say, Council A decided to halve its business rates, and Council B chose to double theirs.  The calibre of local councillors would have to improve, and national politicians would have to be as mindful of council leaders in our great cities as the US Senate must be of state governors.  I reckon that Eric Pickles might have achieved more as a truly empowered Mayor of Bradford, than as Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government.  I’d like to see Tristram Hunt’s reflections on the Victorian New Jerusalem reimagined for the 21st century.  (The author is now an opposition MP for Stoke-on-Trent – if ever a city needed reinventing, it’s Stoke.)

I don’t think these aspirations are knee-jerk libertarianism, though I recognise that there would be at least two parliaments of disruption before any sense of settling down.  I appreciate that you may think I’ve gone from setting up ad hoc market stalls to a permanent shift in the national power base, in a single jump.

“All politics is local”, and it would be a welcome change to see intelligent, competent local  politicians making the right decisions for their town.  Nothing is more local than the revival of a town centre, or the creation of a proper place where people want to settle, work, and raise families.  Elected local politicians should have the discretion to allow appropriate development and changes of use, laid out in their manifesto, and subject to as little Whitehall interference as possible.  Any council should be able to explore Portas recommendations 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 11, 12, 16, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27 or 28, if they see fit, without urging or permission from central government, without national laws having to be passed, intentions watered down, and further red tape wrapped around communities.  And the councillors that enacted all of the above will probably have been elected on a local landslide after they committed to slashing parking charges…

And now, back to reality.  You can read the Local Government Association’s initial response to the Portas report here.

Cumbernauld pictures: treasuredplaces.org.uk; blitzandblight.com


Fewer, bigger/smaller, better shops – who should be planning the future?

Under four weeks to go until Christmas, and the retail stories are falling thicker and faster than last year’s snow.  And – like the snow – there’s precious little good news in most of them – but kudos to The Scotsman, which looks to the future and makes some strong points.

Although struggling/challenging stories have been running for many months (Comet, Black’s, Game etc), it took Philip Green’s (accidental?) candour to set the hares running across the weekend papers.  Although Arcadia tried to play down the suggestion that 10-15% of their stores may close, tried to suggest that this was no more than robust landlord/tenant manoeuvring, if you were PG – well, of course, you’d be planning to close stores – lots of them.

Simon Laffin writes occasional columns for Retail Week that are always worth reading.  This week, he reflects on the swing back to smaller stores, whereby those dreadful supermarket chains have revitalised high streets by opening convenience stores and small supermarkets that are greatly superior to the old local food offer.  He also notes that, with changing work patterns and social structures, the big Saturday shop is no longer the routine it used to be.

Is there a contradiction here?  I don’t think so.  What Laffin’s article and Arcadia’s intentions underline is the extent to which the retail landscape is permanently changing.  The shoppers of today and tomorrow are using the following channels with enthusiasm:

Big regional malls and centres:  Westfield Stratford is hogging the seasonal headlines, but Bluewater, Meadowhall et al are all still going strong.  Big cities that have wisely invested in their shopping environment – Liverpool, Manchester, Bristol, London’s Regent Street – are also enjoying strong footfall, and will eventually be the primary beneficiaries of the Christmas boom.

“Open A1” retail parks:  The big out-of-town parks with open planning consent will continue to offer a regional, one-stop draw.  At Fosse Park, Teesside or Fort Kinnaird, the shopping experience is safe, structured and functional, with intelligent tenant management ensuring the retail offer meets customers’ needs.  Good parks can often be found outside cities where the retail offer has deteriorated, or where car access is poor.

Online:  What proportion of Christmas gift shopping will be online this year – 12%?  15%?  According to IBM, “Black Friday” retail sales in the US are up 24.3% against last year, and although a day is hardly a measure of a season, it’s one hell of a jump in a struggling economy.  Online offers convenience, value, long tail and one-stop.  There is much more growth to come.

Local:  Per the Laffin article, local is getting better, but we’re talking about “real local” here – proper high streets that customers can walk to, where chains and indies can exist harmoniously, and where shopkeepers know their customers by name.  Not Bedford Falls, but a regular feature of dense cities and suburbs, where a car is more of a hindrance than a help.

Three of these channels are Big – a reflection of the global market; one of these channels is Small.  Which leaves the Squeezed Middle, the medium-sized offer that was good enough when we knew no better, but is not much good now.

Overall retail spending is falling, and more of it is going online.  Furthermore, other high street users are suffering – Thomas Cook will be closing around 20% of their agency locations (more will follow), and any product or service that can be digitised has to adapt or die.

There isn’t going to room in the future for shops to hang on and hope.  Of course, a quiet retail frontage might contain a global online business, but medium-sized shops and medium-sized town centres no longer offer great experiences, great value, or great convenience.  In order for these centres to be sustainable, they will have to be shrunk and repurposed.  That means fewer, better shops, easier access (public and private transport), more and better town centre residential (not just buy-to-let hutches), and rent deals that sustain, rather than drive out, commercial users.

Are councils carrying out this sort of long-term planning, or are their horizons no further than the next election?  As a smug Londoner, I have easy access to world-class retail and great local shopping, but beyond the M25 there are millions of consumers whose spending is constrained by recession, and who see no incentive to spend (indeed, little incentive to hope) in their town centres.  How many of Arcadia’s anticipated lease-ends are in these towns, and how will landlords/councils make streets, malls and open spaces work in the future?  The current approach shown by some (hike up parking charges, close libraries, let parks go to ruin, cancel Christmas lights) is distinctly short-term.

At a time of constrained public spending (though with a promise of capital expenditure in tomorrow’s much-trailed Autumn Statement), councils would be open to criticism if they spent money on merely prettifying high streets.  Strategic rethinking, though, is more important, more exciting, and ultimately more urgent.  Can it be done?

Image: http://www.arte.it

Afterword: Wednesday November 30th:

My thanks to My Retail Media, who have republished this piece today in their “Insight” section.  myretailmedia.com is a website dedicated to the Retail Sector, covering all the major retail categories, and offering finance news, videos, comment and insight.  They also produce News at Nine, a free daily eNewsletter, and offer bespoke subscription services, aggregating retail news from over 4,000 sources, and tailored for individual subscribers.


WH Smith: more high street stores

WH Smith’s Stephen Clarke has told The Bookseller: “We have identified the opportunity for 50 new high street stores to open in areas we are currently not represented—mainly in small market towns”.

This is all of a piece with Smith’s acquisition of British Bookshops from the administrators earlier this year.  (Did BBS’s IP include their hit-list of future locations?)  What WHS appears to be doing is developing an “Express” format – like the supermarkets – that can be applied in smaller locations.  Or, in other words, they’re taking the learnings from their highly successful Travel division, and applying it to high streets, where sales have been in decline for years.

Opening stores in suburbs like Pinner is all of a piece with consumers’ preferences shifting either to the regional mega-centre, or to the local parade, leaving mid-sized Camberleys stuck in the middle, neither one thing nor another.

WH Smith has always been a vigorously commercial company – a tradition underlined by their creation and dominance of the railway bookstall market in the 19th century, or the opening of 150 high street shops in the last three months of 1905.  (“Shopfitting [Estate] Department established”, says WHS’s own history web-page, laconically.)  For much of its history, thanks to the establishment status of “the ruler of the Queen’s Navee” and the later arts and crafts interests of St John Hornby, WHS was committed to creating well-designed stores with paternalistic employment practices and a patrician belief in itself.  All of this is now long gone, but so is much of the book and news trade on which WHS subsisted for so long.

Today, vigorous – indeed, ruthless – commercialism is WHS’s byword, and they are as well placed as any to survive the digital bookocalypse.  Strategically, a small high street presence may also be an important insurance policy against the impact of eBooks on the airport and railway trade – expect to see a lot more Kindles by the pools this summer.

Picture: “Lancastrian” on Flickr


Geronto-tech: shock for mall and high street

Every couple of weeks, or so it seems, we get to read a new iteration of the same research.  What this research tells us is that – shock horror – the “older generation” is not only comfortable with “new technology” (sorry for all the quotes marks), but has welcomed it to hearth and home.

Yes, it’s the over-40s/50s/60s that are buying the Kindles, shopping voraciously online and playing Angry Birds.  Who would have thought that the wrinklies, brought up in a world of hansom cabs and gaslight, could have figured out where the On switch is, just like that?

Of course, anyone aged under about 75 had plenty of exposure to PCs in the workplace, and has been living with the internet, digital cameras and novelty phones for the past 10 years and more.  Old dogs are very happy to learn new tricks when there is a palpable benefit available to them.  Indeed, the old dogs have proved remarkably adept at figuring out which functions to ignore on a PC or a TV handset (ie most of them), and how to exploit technology to do straightforward and useful work.  Some applications – eg Twitter – have built their success on the middle-aged, rather than the young.

What all this flim-flam tells us is that, in the real world, the older generation has adapted very readily to technology.  I’m interested in their predilection for shopping online, and for downloading content.  The hardcore of early adopters to new technology and new concepts may be young, but the next wave will be older and wealthier – people who have been around the block a couple of times, and are prepared to pay good money to make life a little easier and a little more interesting.  They’ve learnt the value of shopping around, so they are avid users of price comparison websites; and they’ve got a pretty clear idea about what they enjoy doing, and what leaves them cold.

And increasingly, the business of “going to the shops” is at the frigid end of the scale.  Not just mechanical, repetitive shopping for groceries, that they’re happy to outsource to Tesco or Ocado, perhaps adding a twist of unpredictability with Abel and Cole.  No, more and more consumers reach a point in their life when they know what they like, and they know how to use technology to get it, at the best price.

For teens and early 20s, shopping is a social experience.  Hanging out in New Look or the Apple Retail Store is fun when you’re young.  Ten years later, dragging yourself and family around Debenhams or Currys is precisely the opposite.

Those in their middle years – which for the sake of this argument we’ll extend from the mid-30s right through to the early 70s – are time poor.  Some of them are still cash rich, in the old noughties equation, but the proportion that feels comfortable is falling.  They want value, and they want efficiency.  Online shopping for goods and services provides this, and the physical stores struggle to compete.  For many customers in our broad, middle-aged bracket, the high street is toast.  It’s for the birds.  It’s history.  And if you want to buy this stuff – well, what’s the name telling you?

I think that we are a very long way from seeing this shift from physical store to online shopping flattening out.  Online retailers understand what their customers want – they have infinite data to enable them to continually update their offer to maximise the benefit of clicks on different products and categories.  The manager of a physical store has to stand and watch the displays to see what is grabbing the customers’ attention; the online retailer not only knows, but is constantly tailoring the offer for their market, and for that individual customer.

Of course, consumers still enjoy using stores that give them extra, intangible value.  John Lewis genuinely trains its partners in product knowledge and customer service, rather than paying lip-service to these concepts.  Sales may have dipped at JLP in the past few weeks – the partnership publishes sales data every week, which the City uses as a bellwether for the high street.  I would posit that JLP’s public cold will be others’ private pneumonia.

Given the drift away from shops by the over-35s, what is the future for retail real estate, whether in regional shopping centres or old high streets?  I commented a couple of weeks ago, when I was being rude about Camberley, on the impact of major malls across the UK, whereby the number of locations required for national coverage is falling.  I suspect that this trend will continue, and that the future for shopping will be split between the major destination (Westfield; Kingston; Reading) and the genuinely local high street.

Those that fall between two stools – clone town offers with a choice between poor public transport or expensive parking; towns where shopping, working, recreation and residential zones have been scrupulously separated by planners; centres where the amenities that encourage community are absent – are going to suffer significantly.  We need to think seriously about the future of our town centres; and individual retailers must plan for the online trend to continue to erode their physical store sales, recession or not, for the foreseeable future.


Last night I dreamt I went to Camberley again

Regrettably, however, it was no dream.

Camberley is a commuter town on the Hampshire/Surrey borders, in an area with strong army connections.  35 miles from central London, it is part of a strung-out exurbia which runs north from Aldershot through Farnborough, Camberley itself, Bracknell, Wokingham and into Reading.  You can drive from one end to the other without seeing too many fields, but also without ever feeling that you have actually arrived anywhere.

The post-war growth in these towns was caused by the necessity for residential developers to jump over the green belt.  London stopped expanding, and the new town movement encouraged greenfield development – both in proper New Towns like Bracknell, but also in many other existing small towns.  This area was particularly attractive, assisted by easy rail links into London and, later, good motorway links too.  Thus, exurbia grew, swallowing the old towns it covered, but doing so in a less committed way than, say, the Metropolitan Railway in northern Middlesex between the wars.

What we have today, therefore, is a series of small town centres surrounded by prosperous housing (and some less prosperous estates); employment is in London or locally in financial services, distribution or government agencies.  Everything is very low key.

So, given all this prosperity, clean air and easy communications, how come the centre of Camberley is so dire?

In the 50s-60s, a pedestrianised shopping precinct was laid out in the centre of the town.  It was open air, the architecture was unremarkable Developers’ Modern, and it fitted tolerably well with the existing high street.

In the early 90s, however, a madness seized the town, and the precinct was roofed-in and over-clad in Developers’ PoMo.  All of the architectural gew-gaws were literally stuck on to the existing buildings (OK, I simplify, but Tony Robinson would enjoy picking it all apart), and the centre of town suddenly looked and felt more like a series of corridors at a badly designed swimming pool.  And of course, when the mall is closed, the doors are shut and locked, and what was an integral part of the town centre becomes a sealed capsule at its heart – http://www.surreyheath.gov.uk/leisure/entertainment/Shopping.htm.

At the same time, car ownership has increased, leading to ever more baroque traffic management schemes, and the concentration of chain retailers into the mall (see http://www.themall.co.uk/my-mall/camberley/index.aspx) has sucked the oxygen out of the surrounding streets, which go all the way from run-down to semi-derelict, with a great many vacant units.

To finish the job, a vast Tesco/M&S superstore (“the Meadows”) opened on the outskirts of the town in the 80s, and as Tesco Extra has grown ever more totalitarian in its ranging, the need to go into town at all has diminished.

I wrote, a day or two ago, about the growth of the big centres, and how major chains no longer need as many stores as they used to in order to cover the country adequately.  All of this begs some interesting questions about the future for centres like Camberley – and Farnborough, Aldershot etc.  The quality of chain-store (particularly fashion) provision in Reading, or Guildford, or even Basingstoke, is so much stronger than in the exurbs; but the population is spread across thousands of low-density acres, making the development of true local shopping (per suburban London) impossible.

Oh, and more customers are buying their stuff online now.  Have I mentioned that before?

So, my aim today is not to rile the good people of Camberley, but rather to ask the broader question: who in local government is seriously thinking about how these town centres – and there are scores of Camberleys across the country – are going to develop in the changing world?  They may not have record shops or book shops in the future – but what will they have?  And how will the shoppers, citizens, electors derive the very best benefit from their town centres?  I’d be very happy to join a think-tank on this one…