It’s easy to think all high streets are in crisis. Headlines constantly broadcast the struggles of big brands and the blight of boarded-up shops, and now even John Lewis has issued a profit...
It’s easy to think all high streets are in crisis. Headlines constantly broadcast the struggles of big brands and the blight of boarded-up shops, and now even John Lewis has issued a profit warning. In the debate as to why, the blame is usually shared by online shopping, extortionate business rates and bad business management. They may buzz with festive shoppers for now, but it seems this is just temporary relief from bleaker times.
But in all the noise a vital fact keeps being forgotten: not all high streets are struggling.
While some face shop closures, others are thriving with shoppers, eaters and drinkers. In Brighton, vacancy rates are as low as 7 per cent, in Exeter it’s 8 per cent and in Bristol only 12 per cent of shops are empty, as the map below shows.
High street services vacancy rate for each city centre, 2017-2018
On the other hand, the map also highlights the high streets that are in the most trouble. Almost a quarter of stores are empty in Newport, 19 per cent in Hull and 21 per cent in Wigan. It’s clear the story varies hugely, with the bad news hitting some city centres while bypassing others.
This variation matters because it shows e-commerce is not the sole reason for the decline. If it were, we’d see the same struggles on every high street – it’s just as convenient to shop online in Brighton as in Blackburn.
A pattern in this data points to another cause: city centres with the strongest underlying economies, such as Reading and Bristol, are the ones with vibrant high streets. They house lots of high-skilled jobs, meaning workers are out and about five days out of seven with wages to spend. In contrast, high streets with lots of vacancies tend to have weaker economies struggling to attract these central, well-paid jobs.
As people favour experiences and services over shops, high streets in the strongest city centre economies have adapted. Food and leisure take up a quarter of commercial floorspace, in contrast to only 15 per cent in weaker city centres which are instead dominated by shops but unable to keep them all open. Their lack of footfall and spending power makes it hard to evolve to suit new customer preferences.
The best Christmas present for the British high street would be more and higher-skilled jobs. City centres need to look beyond retail, enticing employers with a diverse mix of quality offices, homes, services and a small but stronger selection of shops.
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