Research highlights challenges in reviving the fortunes of UK’s high streets.
The magnitude of the task facing Mary Portas, who is leading a government review into the future of the high street, has been revealed by research into the state of the independent retail sector in the UK.
Drapers Independent Retailer Directory
The quantitative research, carried out by the Local Data Company (LDC) for the British Independent Retailers’ Association (BIRA), found a significant decline in fashion indies across all categories and parts of the country between 2008 and 2010.
The number of kidswear indies fell 18.2% over the two years, while the number of womenswear and menswear indies dropped 15.3% and 12.5% respectively. Closures have been most marked in the Northeast, where 30.6% of fashion indies have closed, in the East, which has seen a decline of 22.9%, and in Wales, which has lost 19.8% of its fashion indies.
The report, which collected data from 800 UK high streets, maintained that, overall, the independent sector was weathering the recession better than the multiples because they could be nimble and quickly reinvent themselves.
It also insisted that indies’ overall closure rate fell over the past three years. However, the figures will do little to cheer the fashion sector, which is bearing the brunt of the high street’s woes.
LDC director Matthew Hopkinson said the high street was suffering from the effects of the recession, but added that other issues, including the growth of out-of-town retail and the dominance of the supermarkets, had contributed to the decline.
He said: “Apply all of this to the independent sector and you can see it is overwhelming. The high street that they predominantly occupy has had a tornado go down it.”
Michael Weedon, deputy chief executive and communications director at BIRA, said: “Town centres are suffering both natural and man-made damage, but indies are weathering the storm and showing signs of a natural ability to revive the high streets - if they are freed from the shackles that hamper them.”
The association, which represents 1,500 dedicated fashion indies, or 4,000 when department stores and other stores that also sell fashion as part of their offer are taken into account, believes those shackles include town centre parking issues, high levels of rents and business rates, and planning legislation which has encouraged out-of-town schemes.
Frances Chalmers, owner of indie Exclusive Footwear in York, an area which along with the Humber region has seen a 17.4% reduction in fashion indies, said the indie sector was being squeezed by a combination of falling sales and rising business rates.
“About four or five stores around here have already gone and I know of another three that are thinking of closing. It is really serious,” she said.
Chalmers thoughts were echoed by Frederique Horton, owner of premium womenswear indie Rouge in Cardiff, who agreed that high rents and business rates were making it hard for indies to cope. She added that, in Cardiff, the city council’s decision to pedestrianise the city centre had also led to a drop in footfall.
Sadie Ayton, owner of lingerie indie Sadie the Bra Lady, which has four branches and one franchise in the Northeast - the worst-affected region - said she had been forced to close stores at the start of the recession, but shared BIRA’s faith that indies were weathering the storm.
She said: “Indies tend to be the lifeblood of the people that run them. They are often more passionate about their business because it is theirs. If you own a business you are going to stick with it and do everything you can to make it work.”