Games retailers say the rescue plan laid out by TV retail expert Mary Portas to revive UK High Streets “doesn’t go far enough”.
Last month, the Queen of Shops published her Government-commissioned review into the decline of the High Street. The Portas Review explored the reasons behind falling sales and the rise in vacant retail properties. It also recommended ways in which town centres can be revived by increasing footfall and the number of profitable businesses.
Portas believes the High Street’s salvation lies in creating local Town Teams that will run their areas like a business, and employing the expertise of larger retailers to help smaller chains and independents.
And while retail veterans agree with these proposals, some believe much stronger action is needed – particularly in terms of regulating sign-offs on new out-of-town retail developments.
“It’s a sticking plaster on a broken leg – it doesn’t go far enough,” says Chips joint MD Don McCabe. “There are too many retail outlets in this country for the amount of shopping that’s going on. You don’t keep building schools when there’s no need for them, so why keep building empty shops?
“Retail sales are going down all the time. It’s not just out-of-town retail parks – the need for any major retail development should be verified before it even goes ahead.”
Even Portas’ plans to revive the market culture with lower regulations for aspiring traders could present new problems for the games industry.
“Less than vigourously policed markets allow more traders to sell pirated goods,” explains Game Guide editor Chris Ratcliff. “If we permit a less regulated street market culture, then the council enforcement teams will need to be enhanced and given more authority to detect, remove and prosecute sellers of counterfeit and illegal goods.”
The proposal of establishing Town Teams has been well received but retailers insist they must be integral to this scheme if it is to succeed. Crucially, companies do not want those who don’t understand retail to make an already tough environment any worse.
McCabe says: “Running towns like a business is a great idea, but not if councils are in charge. You need businesses to work together, not councillors. “Some of our local councils have tried reviving town centres by sticking in flowerbeds or putting up pretty lights – they’ve got as much idea about running a business as they have about flying to the moon.”
The Review claimed retail parks, supermarkets and the internet have been a major factor in luring shoppers away from High Streets. Last year, less than half of all retail sales were generated by town centres – and this is expected to continue falling. By comparison, one third of sales were taken by out-of-town retail parks alone.
High Street retailers are determined to take matters into their own hands. “Although we can point the finger elsewhere, ultimately we must look to ourselves,” says HMV’s head of press and PR Gennaro Castaldo.
“The High Street must make itself more relevant to today’s shoppers and to transform its overall appeal. To do this, it must work with local councils, who must invest in their High Street and shopping centres in ways that will encourage greater number of shoppers to visit retail locations that are engaging, appealing, convenient and safe to visit.”
McCabe adds: “The reason people go to retail parks is convenience and free parking. It’s also difficult to get into High Streets: most have one-way systems and pedestrianised areas, so stores are being landlocked. So you need to turn town centres back into convenient places with adequate parking.”
FATE OF THE HIGH STREET
And then there are those that believe the High Street’s demise may well be the natural evolution of retail. So much about the world has changed in the last ten years: the way we consume entertainment, the sources we rely on for news and other information. Why should the way we purchase goods be any different?
Other countries around the globe have embraced different forms of retail, from the hypermarts that dominate Europe to the shopping malls of the USA, offering a possible insight into the UK’s retail future.
“Maybe the time has come to call an end to the traditional High Street and adopt the out-of-town shopping mall or supermarket model,” says Ratcliff.
“In Australia, many shopping malls are built so that indies are placed between two chain stores, which means they’re scattered around the mall and enjoy the same passing footfall as the big shops. Meanwhile in the USA, out-of-town strip malls that do not have a large chain store are going out of business.
“We don’t have the room to relocate our High Streets out of town, but a solution would be to put responsibilities onto the supermarkets: force them to include a few small and affordable retail units adjoined to the main entrance of each store.”
That’s not to say games retailers have given up on the High Street, of course. Far from it.
Those with a High Street presence are determined to keep their foothold, with specialists such as GAME and HMV experimenting with new store layouts and concept stores to offer consumers a different shopping experience.
“High Street stores play a crucial role for a multichannel retailer,” says Simon Soffe, GAME Group’s investor relations and communications director. “We look forward to continuing this important debate about how best to support them.”
The debate enters its next step in the spring, when the Government will be called on to respond to Portas’ recommendations. Until then, it is up to retailers to find new ways to draw consumers back to their High Street stores. As with so many industries, it is a case of adapt or perish.
Portas herself observes: “How we shop as a nation has quite simply changed beyond recognition. Forever.”What are you doing to keep up with these changes?