Tis the season for doom-mongery, that’s for sure. What with the whole B-word debacle, chirpy Mr Carney’s cheery forecasts and parliament’s miserable vision on all sides, 2018 was perfectly topped off with the gravelly wisdom of nonagenarian national treasure, Sir David Attenborough, declaring the end of the world is nigh. Very nigh indeed, apparently.
And if anybody wants a touch more gloom to help thicken the December fug, they need look no further than the UK high street, which is desperately gasping for oxygen right now. Over the course of this year, I thought I’d made my views pretty clear on where this is all heading via numerous blogs, conference rants, podcasts, press quotes and radio interviews. But it became clear at a couple of drinky events recently, that I haven’t quite explained myself fully. So, I thought I’d pull together a handful of my little nuggets of wisdom to make a big, brownish plasticine ball of prediction, as a kind of misshapen full-stop at the year’s end. Here goes:
Let’s be honest, 2018 was peak doggy-do for retail. If there was any previous doubt, this year slapped that down pretty pronto. As spring sprang into life, news of M&S closures quickly quashed any uplifting spirits with the unmistakable resonance of a proper death knell. Instantly, we saw a picture of our own high street without a beloved M&S at its centre. The news of Maplin, Poundworld, Carpetright and Toys r Us had earned a mere eye-roll, but M&S is Mummy for god’s sake! (great at cooking, not so fashionable). This is serious.
Mike Ashley’s Trumpish rant at that recent government committee was actually rather illuminating, as well as entertaining. He shook his puffy red cheeks in disbelief at every line of his lacklustre grilling. His interrogators were little more than a rag tag horseshoe of poorly dressed, wannabe librarians with as firm a grasp on commerce as I have on football. With these guys in charge, what hope have we got?
Ultimately, it’s obvious. Left to market forces, our high streets will continue to collapse in upon themselves, helped along by big name closures such as HOF, Debenhams and M&S. But once we have the optics of M&S boarded up for a year or two (surely optics must be the word of 2018?) rents and rates will plummet so that clever, hungry young independents might actually get a chance to kick-start a revival of our beleaguered towns. After all, we were bemoaning the cookie-cutter high street a few years ago. Now that it’s dying all this panic seems a bit disingenuous.
If we cannot wait for market forces to take their toll then government action on rents and rates might catalyse things. Ashley’s 20% online tax would certainly drive us away from Amazon, but added to VAT, are we really encouraging the government to tax us 40%? We would certainly live to regret that.
The good news is coming, but not for a few years yet. The digital age has taught us what we want from the real world, and however dreadful things look at the moment I’m convinced the market square, and all that brings with it, will be back with a vengeance. This time the authorities will understand they must massage and manage their high streets just like a successful shopping centre: taxing profits when times are good, supporting with investment and marketing when times are bad, sculpting their spaces with brands that work in harmony with each other (rather than plonking down the first shop that offers the most rent) encouraging start ups and quirky one-offs because they add to the overall mix and the vision of what we want from our town centres. Yes, retail is a full time job.
And imagine how powerful it will be if our children, and children’s children, know they can bring their own ideas and products to market, instead of assuming it’s in lock down with Debenhams and WH Smith. Imagine the innovation and energy we’ve seen in the craft beer market being encouraged across other retail categories. There is a slew of independent butchers, bakers and yes, candle-makers that currently can only dream of having their own shop in town. So much of the future will cherry-pick the best of the past to bring us what we really want.
Believe me, the future will be rich in innovation and inspiration. Alternatively, believe Sir David and start saving for that ticket to Elon Musk’s Mars. But act quickly if you want to avoid the 40% online tax.
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