'What is the problem with our nation's high streets that are struggling to survive?'

Commercial Road in Portsmouth
Commercial Road in Portsmouth
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SHOP manager and Portsmouth businessman, Thomas Pearson has worked in the retail sector most of his life. Today he writes about why the nation’s high streets are failing – and how shops are struggling to survive.

We, the shoppers killed retail, we are to blame.

That’s what the media suggests. But is this the case? Has our demand for one touch shopping gone too far and ruined ‘shopping with friends’ jeopardising thousands of jobs?

For the last few weeks I have been fortunate to travel (and shop) at some wonderful southern shopping destinations.

I’ve also recently gained a job as a store manager again. The role and business is very buoyant. But I’m one of the lucky ones.  

I took a step out of management to pursue a completely different career. However, I missed the rewarding rush that face-to-face retail brings.

What I’ve seen walking around these shopping districts is the severe change in the high street.

Now, I’ve worked through some tough times in retail – 2008 was a terrifying, we saw iconic businesses fall into administration.

The media coverage of the credit crunch worried the whole sales team that day. Was it a sign of things to come? How bad could it get?

Never did we imagine that ten years later that even the once-mighty behemoths of retail destination shopping – House Of Fraser and Debenhams – would start to unravel.

According to the office of national statistics, the amount spent within stores grew modesty since 2008, in contrast, while online sales show a sharper rate of growth, increasing six-fold since 2008 and contributing to the growth in overall retail sales.

Online sales have shown a steady increase since 2008, but have really set off in the last three years, as online spending increased at a faster rate from 2015.

This has coincided with a slight slowdown in store spending, which shows the beginning of a shift in consumer behaviour to spending more online.

Sales have actually been flat in retail since 2014, as customers turned to online stores.

Last year we had record proportions for online spending, increasing to 18.2  per cent in August.

Department stores continued to reach a record proportion of online retailing in August 2018, at 18.4 per cent.

It led to institutional outlets like Knight and Lee and Debenhams in Southsea being branded unnecessary in the current retail climate.

In 2008, I claimed to friends, family and colleagues that the media fuelled the run on the banks, credit crunch and the dramatic effect the fore-mentioned had on retail. I was wrong, jaded and ignorant.

While the media certainly didn’t help customer confidence in retail, the lack of credit available to all certainly made retail sales difficult and created a new breed of savvy shoppers looking for bargains.

These were found online. Amazon – once marvelled for its sales of discounted books (that nearly killed Waterstones) along with other online only big brands managed to do retail cheaper, with less overheads – delivered to your door.

And we never looked back, taking subscriptions out for next day delivery.

During this same era, we also saw the rise of the discount shopping outlet villages. Our very own Gunwharf Quays developed from housing stores like M&S Outlet, Sports Direct and faded brands like Clinton Cards, Crabtree & Evelyn and HMV, to holding some of the most prestigious retail brands from around the world.

There’s no doubt Gunwharf has moved from strength to strength and can be seen as Portsmouth’s modern high street.

But most locations haven’t been so lucky, with many having to contend with crushing blows to business.

Stores are now closing at a faster rate than 10 years ago. Even Tesco announced it’s cutting 4,100 express jobs nationwide this week.

Rents, rates, staff costs and discounting have cut margins to push stores into unprofitably.

They are businesses, they have to make a profit.

With little incentive to stay open and leases coming to an end, it’s likely only to get worse.

Retail isn’t what it once was. We now shop when we want – on the couch. alone...