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More fuel for Portas’s town centre debate

Alan Hawkins

Spotting a trend is in your fashion blood.

Spotting a trend is in your fashion blood. You do it all the time. It doesn’t come so easy to everybody else, so please stop judging my tie and, come to that, my suit. The point about a trend, of course, is that it is what’s developing while most people are thinking about what’s already in front of them.

There are trends in every walk of life. Often we don’t spot them until they are full blown, mature and in some cases have already been and gone. It happened with town centre shops. One day in 2008 there were a few empty ones, about one in 20, then late last year the Local Data Company pointed out that actually, if you counted them (which they did), there were far more empty ones than before. One in seven, in fact.

The media and the Government reacted and Mary Portas was appointed to report on what to do about it. We all await ‘The Report’ with keen interest.

One of the trends spotted has been the growth of out-of-town shopping. The ‘high-level’ briefing at the recent Department for Business, Innovation and Skills/Portas think tank reported that out-of-town shopping would continue to grow, as a result of an expected 10% increase in consumer income and spending, and that this would further adversely affect town centres.

It was reported that small stores saw sales rise 2.1% on the previous September, compared with just 0.2% at large stores, which was attributed to an emerging local shopping trend that reflected the rise in fuel costs (which could be just a one-month blip). But then again, who thinks fuel costs are coming down again? And who thinks disposable consumer income is going up by 10% any time soon? Perhaps the in-town/out-of-town issue will solve itself in the upward trend of fuel prices, without the need for Mary’s trend-spotting abilities.

  • Alan Hawkins is chief executive of trade body the British Independent Retailers Association (Bira)

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