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It's shopping, but not as we know it

Good grief. How much more doom and gloom can the multiple retailers take? Not only have private equity firms put buyouts - otherwise known as management cash-ins - on hold due to the crisis in the debt markets, but now apparently no one is visiting their stores.

According to footfall specialist SPSL, almost 10% fewer people went shopping during last week's bank holiday weekend than at the same time last year. Bank holidays are never a great indicator of trade because people tend to do extraordinary things during their weekend, rather than ordinary things such as going shopping. So the news should not be all that surprising, particularly because much of the UK basked in the first good weekend weather it had experienced in a long time.

As a figure in isolation it would not be much of a concern, but it is the long-term data that is making retailers think because the trend is undeniably down. FootFall, SPSL's rival, says between January and August the number of people out shopping was down between 5% and 8% on last year. It says footfall for the rest of the year will continue to be lower than in 2006.

It seems there are less people that think it's worth visiting shops this year than last. Some have been seduced by the rather clinical but hassle-free joys of internet shopping, while others no doubt have been battered by five successive interest rate hikes and what that might do to their bank balance in the future.

There is definitely a large and indigestible kernel of truth in all this, but I sense the high street is missing a trick in not providing real entertainment value in the shopping experience.

We are long past the days of "If we build it, they will come" in terms of the high street and shopping centres. If you do not run a destination store - and very few retailers do these days - then customers have to have other good reasons to come out to play.

Decent affordable parking and an appropriate nearby food and drink offer should now be a given. Somewhere to entertain the kids and the opportunity to do something else other than just shop are welcome, but what marks out one development, town or individual shopping area from another is the willingness of retailers, centre managers, town planners and local authorities to engage with each other to take their relationship beyond a single project, and to continually work together to make their shopping experience stand out from all the rest.

Retailers like to say that they prefer to stick to what they know and not get engaged in external issues. That attitude must change, because the only way to preserve your bottom line from long-term attrition is to join in and change your town or cityscape for the better.

Ask yourself where you will be shopping this weekend, and why. I'm off to London's Regent Street, but it's not the pull of the likes of Zara or Hoss Intropia that will get me there, although they can expect a visit. As a Londoner, I'm off to Regent Street's annual festival. The theme is Indian Summer - with a traffic-free street, a Goan beach area and Indian food stalls, it should be worth the journey.

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