Graham Soult

Britain’s retail landscape ­- five years after Woolworths’ demise

It’s retail focus week on Bdaily. Here, Graham Soult, a retail consultant at CannyInsights.com, analyses the current retail landscape in the UK.

It’s hard to believe it’s been so long already, but five years ago this month - in December 2008 - we were in the midst of one of the most turbulent periods of recent retail history.

After collapsing into administration in November, a closure date for all 807 Woolworths stores had been announced, though hope remained - ultimately unrealised - that a last-minute rescue might still be pulled off. Meanwhile, at the end of an extraordinary year for the economy that saw some of Britain’s biggest banks bailed out, a raft of other familiar retail names collapsed - Whittard, Adams, MFI, Zavvi, Officers Club - with jobs lost and store numbers trimmed.

So, five years on, where are we now? It’s certainly true that it’s been a challenging five years for high-street retailers. Though retail sales are showing encouraging signs, consumer confidence - and the economic recovery itself - remains fragile. The growth of online retail remains one of the biggest structural changes the sector has ever seen, forcing traditional retailers to change how they do business. And many of the biggest challenges facing the high street - such as the need for business rates reform, and excessive town centre parking charges - are yet to be properly resolved.

However, anyone who follows my blog and tweets will know that I’m perennially optimistic about the future prospects for our high streets. Indeed, I’ve spent the last five years visiting and revisiting hundreds of those high streets myself.

What I’ve found, despite all the challenges I’ve mentioned, is that many retailers are doing well. The Internet has brought out the best in many established firms, as companies like John Lewis and Next develop truly multichannel businesses that combine bricks and clicks with creative marketing across traditional and online media. Indeed, the physical store is far from dead, as newer, nippier players - including many superb independents - snap up town centre space vacated by others collapsing or downsizing.

The demise of Woolworths, indeed, has been instrumental in reshaping the high street between 2008 and 2013. Research currently being carried out by my retail consultancy business CannyInsights.com - and due for publication next month - is looking at what the UK’s ex-Woolworths stores have become. In doing so, it shines a spotlight on all those modern retailers that have used the freeing up of Woolworths’ store estate as an opportunity to grow their own businesses.

Poundland and B&M, for example, have each added 250 stores in the five years since Woolworths’ collapse - a good chunk of those in ex-Woolies premises. Meanwhile, longer-established names like Primark, H&M, Wilkinson and TK Maxx have all taken advantage of Woolworths’ collapse freeing up large stores in towns where they were previously not represented.

Perhaps most remarkable, however, is just how few former Woolworths sites remain empty - less than 5%, based on my preliminary findings. So, to those who say the high street is dying, I would disagree.

For sure, other weak retailers may yet collapse before the downturn is over. Five years on from the loss of Woolworths, however, the best of Britain’s retailers - both old and new - have shown their capacity to adapt, to innovate, and to seize the exciting opportunities afforded by our evolving retail landscape.

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