If you could wipe the UK’s high streets clean and start again, the resulting mix of retail across the country would undoubtedly look very different to how it does today.
We are all well acquainted with the issues and challenges facing this difficult part of the retail market, and last year’s high-profile government review led by Mary Portas served, if nothing else, to focus on what might be done to alleviate some of them and rejuvenate struggling high streets in key areas.
Larger retailers, almost without exception, have been quietly divesting of extraneous underperforming sites, since the digital age has meant an online offering effectively replaces the need for an extensive retail estate. Most have also pared down their estates to consist predominantly of larger sites in key areas, such as mega-shopping centres like Westfield’s. The other big issue is rents, which became inflated during the years before the digital revolution as competition for sites among larger operators hotted up and now sit at levels that exclude most small retailers and indies. As the lease agreements come up for renewal and larger retailers pull out, landlords that doggedly stick to high rental charges are increasingly finding themselves with vacant units, adding to the feeling in many town centres that things are falling apart and further discouraging shoppers.
Interestingly, this week Drapers was given a glimpse of what it might be to set out a plan for a retail environment from scratch as we were walked through the plans for the ‘unfashionable’ end of London’s Oxford Street, formerly the home of a hotchpotch of downmarket fashion traders mixed with some really bad architecture and a smattering of underperforming retail. Certainly it was not a place where people went to spend serious money on fashion, and indeed, most shoppers would never have made it further east than M&S. But with the Crossrail project ripping through the area, and many former tenants taking the opportunity to shut up shop, there is now something of a blank canvas on which to build a modern retail offering.
Primark has led this, mainly because it can. Plant a Primark just about anywhere, and people will come. In their hundreds of thousands. It did it at Marble Arch at the other end of Oxford Street in a site just about every other large retailer had failed in, and it has done it again with its new store next to Tottenham Court Road Tube station. The challenge now is for landlords to flex rents to attract the right mix to finish the area and make it a rounded shopping hub. Indies need to be represented alongside giants such as Primark if shoppers are going to dwell longer, and talking to the New West End Company about the development this week, there is a real opportunity to create a relevant and exciting retail mix led by the fashion sector.