It has been a bad week for the UK’s high streets. Arcadia, owner of brands such as Topshop and Burtons, has fallen into administration. Debenhams has suffered its final collapse and will be put out its misery in January having used the Christmas period to sell through as much stock as possible. All 120+ department stores will close. Between the two companies 25,000 jobs are at risk. 25,000 households face a pretty bleak Christmas.
In Caernarfon, where our shop is, we’ve already lost KFC, Holland & Barrett, Poundstretcher, and almost certainly Argos, this year. With the group that owns Peacocks and Edinburgh Woollen Mill teetering on the edge as well, there may be more pain to come. For Bangor the loss of Debenhams will be a huge blow to a high street already scared by endless empty units.
All of this is grim news. The pandemic is accelerating trends that have been decimating high streets for years now. Online shopping, unreformed business rates and poor management were already a pretty toxic brew for High Street retailers to confront, covid is merely applying the final nail in the coffin to retailers who have been in and out of administration for years in some cases.
Does this really matter? Isn’t it a good thing that people can shop from the comfort of their own sofa’s for everything they want? Surely low prices and maximum convenience is a win for the consumer. If that means some lumbering, unresponsive retail dinosaurs from the pre-digital age have to be read their last rites, well, so be it.
That view is short sighted at best. If we start with just the jobs aspect of the equation, 25,000 more unemployed people is a real blow at a time when the economy is struggling anyway and those job losses will fall disproportionately on women as well, further adding to the gender imbalances in employment statistics. On top of that much of our money spent online goes to companies not based in the UK who pay little tax here. Yes, warehouse distribution jobs are created by online sales but not in the quantity required to offset the high street losses.
But beyond the painful statistics, the decreased tax take and the families missing out on Christmas presents this year, there is a wider reason to care about the fate of our High Streets. The vibrancy, attractiveness and well being of our towns depend on them. If you’re fortunate enough to own your own home, the value of that can be dependent on them too.
When we were deciding where to open our shop, we spent a lot of time choosing the right location. When we looked at Bangor we saw the largest conurbation in the area that had a university population full of more environmentally aware younger shoppers. We also saw a high street already hollowing out with a large number of national retailers still to lose. In addition to that Bangor has large shop units, marketed by national letting agents ideally suited to those big multiple players. However, they are too big and too expensive for independents to get started in. We couldn’t see how Bangor could bounce back quickly from the trends sweeping through high street retail even before Covid struck.
In contrast, Caernarfon had lost a lot of its national chains, although a few remained. Put brutally, much of the pain had already occurred and the town had a healthy sector of small independent retailers with small shop units ideally sized and priced for others to follow suit. To us, the choice was obvious. So far, time is proving us right.
But the challenge is huge. There are no white knights riding to the rescue of our high streets. No big retailers desperate to open large chains of stores across the UK. Our high streets, the places we walk and work every day, are only going to recover from the onslaught of cyclical change and coronna virus if we, the local people who live in towns and cities up and down the land, have the courage and imagination to bring them back to life. Sustainable high streets are only possible if independent retailers, owned by local people, responding to the needs of their families, friends and customers, take up the challenge of opening shops and fighting to make them viable.
In that sense Caernarfon has a head start on what the future has to look like. The correct size shops, a strong tourist trade anchored by a World Heritage Site, and a network of established independent shops who will welcome newcomers with open arms if our experience is anything to go by. That recipe is repeatable elsewhere, maybe with a slightly different mix of those vital ingredients, but still hewing to the basics of local people taking responsibility and ownership of the places they live.
The idea of no big chains coming to rescue our battered high streets can be scary, but it is also a massive opportunity once the worst of the pandemic passes. We have it in our power, through the pound in our pockets, to start creating the town centres of the future. You can start this Christmas by shopping as locally as possible and challenging yourself to by locally produced presents for family and friends. There’s loads of great stuff out there, it’s really not that hard. The most difficult part is making that conscious choice to get off the sofa and make a difference.
And in the new year, as spring arrives and the world slowly recovers, well then it’s time for people to step forward full of amazing ideas that make the best of their skills and find ways to open small shops and bring our towns back to life.
As our example shows, it is possible, just expect to work plenty of overtime…