Sainsbury’s Local, Newcastle
Graham Soult

Member Article

Why the high street’s not doomed

Graham Soult, owner of CannyInsights.com, on why the high street still has a future.

These days, it’s hard to open a newspaper without seeing lurid headlines predicting the death of the high street.

Last week, comments apparently made by Justin King, the boss of Sainsbury’s, provided plenty of ammunition for the doom-mongers. King was reported to have called for the high street to “shrink or die,” arguing that its decline was the fault of local shops not offering customers what they wanted, rather than expanding supermarket giants luring shoppers away.

Look beyond the eyecatching headline, however, and you’d also see King’s assertion that “I do not believe the high street is doomed”. That’s hardly surprising: after all, as I pointed out when I discussed the story on BBC Tees, small stores on local high streets are precisely where Sainsbury’s and its competitors are seeing the greatest opportunities for growth.

Clearly there’s a debate to be had, and my own view, having visited 200 town centres in the last three years, is that the high street is evolving rather than dying.

Undoubtedly, out-of-town and online retail is having an impact on the high street. However, they are also forcing us to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of our traditional retail centres, and to think hard about those places’ potential, just as Mary Portas’ recent report has advocated.

Even the alternatives to the high street aren’t without flaws. Retail parks are convenient, but whether you’re at Silverlink, Teesside Park or Team Valley, one experience is much the same as another.

Similarly, while online retail offers access to a limitless range of products, often at very keen prices, there’s less appeal in waiting for your goods or collecting a missed parcel from the depot. Little wonder that ‘click and collect,’ where customers order online but collect from a physical store, is currently a huge area of growth. For the canniest multichannel retailers, online shopping can therefore bring people in to their high-street stores.

So, what does the high street need if it’s to thrive? One thing is to tackle the punitive rents and business rates that are out of kilter with the current market, and that make it hard for retailers to trade in the first place.

Another is to address the various factors that put shoppers off going to our high streets, whether that’s bewildering road access, overpriced car parks, or the scourge of the ‘chugger’.

Crucially, if you look beyond these things, many high streets have a lot going for them. As I travel around the UK, I come across towns with immense character and charm, and independent retailers offering distinctive products and superb service: experiences that can be hard to replicate online or in a retail shed.

As the Government responds to the Portas Review, we do need policy changes to create a more level playing field. In the meantime, however, it doesn’t hurt to big up what we’ve already got, and to avoid talking the high street into decline.

This was posted in Bdaily's Members' News section by Graham Soult .

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