Yesterday morning, the retail industry woke up to more scaremongering headlines that serve only to feed public pessimism over the high street. I was called up to discuss the matter on Sky News, primarily because I felt more than able to counter the view that stats like this mark the “death of the high street”. The problem is that most people don’t really take the time to understand what exactly these figures mean. Looking at the statistics in detail, it’s simply not as clear-cut as the media, or rather the data source (who garner a huge amount of media coverage by publishing these stats), would have us believe.
UK high street vacancy rates have reportedly reached a 4-year low…
Less than a month ago, the Local Data Company reported a positive improvement in UK high street vacancy rates – a drop after four bad years. This was covered in several press features and something of a high street revival was declared.
Yesterday, the same company used the “death of the high street” as a headline-grabbing statement.
But let’s dig deeper. LDC says that a net of 16 shops closed per day across the UK’s 500 largest towns. If you pull this apart, it comes to just under one shop per month per town, in the same period that phones4u and La Senza entered administration. However, if you read a different stat, c. 950 stores closed in the first nine months of this year (in the largest 500 towns) – this means only 2 stores per town in a whole 9 months – so which stat do we believe?
Either way, the largest towns have hundreds of shops…so really, it means a less than 1% rise in vacancy rates in the UK’s biggest towns. Not really the death of the high street then, is it?
But then, what’s this? The data isn’t representative of the whole market view! We’re only looking at net loss of chain stores…. Apparently, on this coming Monday, we can look forward to MORE headlines revealing why UK vacancy rates are stable thanks to… new independent retail openings!
The truth is that, thanks to indies setting up shop, the whole industry is actually steady, while statistics like these are twisted to make a big impact on headlines.
To the media, it’s not worth mentioning that indie retail openings actually offset chain store closures and stabilise vacancy rates – which in truth are at their lowest in almost half a decade.
These statistics only indicate the death of the clone town… and the evolution of the high street.
Personally, I believe that using statistics in a negative light in order to make great headlines is irresponsible.
Harming consumer perceptions and investor confidence is not helpful. Monday’s figures will show high streets are sustained, in fact transformed, by the more entrepreneurial indie retailers. LDC know this, but chose to split the figures into two separate announcements – clearly to make a bigger PR impact and get more column inches.
Shops close for many reasons: refits, retirement, change of use, business issues, lease expiry… and more. I’d say if we’re getting our knickers in a twist over stats that show ONLY chain stores closing at a rate of 1 per town per month (at most), during a time when people are reportedly tired of “clone town Britain”, this must be the natural transition from old to new, in response to the changing needs and wants of the consumer.
Reflecting on the details, on the reality that the average UK high street vacancy rates are at a four-year low, and that this is due to the increasing numbers of independent businesses, I would say we should celebrate – celebrate the death of the clone town and the emergence of a NEW model; one that is relevant, appropriate and tailored to the needs and wants of the local community which it is there to serve.