Howard Saycell, chief executive of electrical retailers association Retra, has welcomed the Government’s appointment of a panel of retail experts to work out how best to halt the decline of the high street.
High Streets Minister Jake Berry MP said the panel, to be led by Timpson chairman Sir John Timpson, would “diagnose” the problems affecting the health of our high streets and make “practical” recommendations to ensure they do not turn into the ghost towns veteran retailer and former Wickes and Iceland chief executive Bill Grimsey warns about in his latest report.
The panel features members from the retail sector, as well as property investment, local government and not-for-profit social impact groups.
Mr Saycell said any action from the Government now “should be welcomed”, but feared a “Yes Minister”-style inquiry that doesn’t amount to anything.
He pointed to a 2006 parliamentary report on the threat to small businesses from market-led and external forces, including property prices, poor planning decisions, crime and heavy regulations.
“That was 14 years ago and nothing came out of it,” Mr Saycell said. “Now, because of inactivity from the Government, the whole high street is at risk.”
ParcelHero said the Government initiative may be “too little too late”. The ecommerce delivery specialist has predicted that by 2030 50 per cent of existing UK stores will have closed.
David Jinks, head of consumer research at ParcelHero, was unimpressed with Mr Berry’s suggestion that the high street of the future would feature more childcare centres and gyms “to bring people back and ensure that they keep returning”.
He called on the Government to urgently slash business rates and change regulations to allow empty commercial city centre buildings to be used as homes to ensure life returns to “dead” city centres in the evenings.
“Frankly, gyms and childcare centres aren’t even going to be sticking plaster over the empty shop windows on our town centres. Let’s hope Sir John’s panel have fresher ideas,” Jinks said.
Sir John Timpson said: “The panel cannot offer an instant, quick-fix solution, but we hope to identify practical and commonsense decisions that will help the Government provide the support that local communities and businesses need to provide the leisure and shopping facilities people will want 25 years from now.”
Mr Berry said that later in the summer the expert panel, in conjunction with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG), will put out a call for evidence asking what members of the public – and young people in particular – want from the high streets of the future.
But there was no indication of timescales, estimates of when recommendations will be published and what the Government will do with the recommendations if and when there are any.
Mr Saycell told ERT that business rates and high-street parking charges are the biggest killers for bricks-and-mortar retail, with high-street shops accounting for around a quarter of the total £28 billion annual business rates bill, according to the British Retail Consortium.
Marks and Spencer shut down its flagship Covent Garden store earlier this year after an increase of more than £500,000 on its annual business rates bill.
Mr Saycell argued that the “playing field has to be levelled” with internet retailers, which tend to have warehouses in rural areas and on the outskirts of poorer towns, paying “their fair share”.
But he said that even if this does happen, the independent sector has to evolve and offer an added-value experience to compete in the digital era.
“Smart-home custom install is one avenue certain retailers are going down, and some are even getting into kitchen design to increase margins and offer a one-stop shop,” he said. “Rentals is another interesting route, with cash-strapped millennials living in rented accommodation preferring to rent TVs, white goods, and even kettles and toasters.”
ParcelHero’s Jinks said: “We all need a reason, or at least an excuse, to return to the High Street. High Street stores must offer a great shopping experience, and more product expertise. Business rates need to be slashed. Most of all, a click-and-mortar approach to retail is urgently needed by stores such as Debenhams and House of Fraser. Astonishingly their web pages still link to other retailers’ ‘white label’ sites for large items such as furniture or large electrical goods. Such clunky unintegrated sites have no place in 21st century retail.”