Comment: Is it all doom and gloom on the high street?

Lee Hayhurst, head of news, Travel WeeklyIf you’re a Sunday Times reader you may not have cared much for the headline at the weekend which declared “High street faces summer of woe”.

There were no travel firms among the many faltering high street retailers listed to back up this warning, but the implication was clear that times are clearly very tough out there.

Habitat, Jane Norman, Dolphin Bathrooms and Moben Kitchens, Clinton Cards, Thornton’s, Comet, PC World and Curry’s, HMV and Waterstones – all either gone, at risk or downsizing.

This, the paper said, “will trigger a fundamental reshaping of the high street, with the danger that some town centres and small shopping malls could be left nearly empty”.

So while no high street travel agents were picked out, the feared decimation of the British high street will not leave the sector unscarred.

The Sunday Times paraphrased ‘experts’ who laid the blame at the door of three factors: “a rapid shift to internet shopping, a slump in consumer confidence, and from some chains having taken on too much debt and over-expanded during the boom”.

Well, in travel retailing the third can’t really be said to be a problem given the gradual consolidation of retail estates in recent years, and the second is out of anyone’s control.

The first is a challenge for every bricks and mortar business. How do you remain competitive in the age of more convenient, and often cheaper – if at times less spiritually rewarding – online shopping?

The internet has long been a bogeyman for high street retailers. But is it actually true that online shopping is gaining more traction? Let’s look at the Office for National Statistics May 2011 Retail Sales Index (RSI) and the British Retail Consortium Retail Sales Monitor (RSM).

The RSI showed ‘non-store’ or online retailing was up 19% in volume in May on May 2010 and the value of online sales was up 18.3% for the same time period, equalling the highest proportion of sales seen since the index was started in 1988.

The RSM, however, recorded the increase in online sales slowing in May 2011, although this was against strong growth in May last year, growing by just 10.4% compared to 20% in May 2010. April 2011 saw online sales grow 13.7%.  

The RSI figures also pointed out internet sales in May still only account for 9.4% of all sales, up from 8.5% in April – growing but still a small proportion of overall sales and still pretty low given the share of voice online retail appears to enjoy.

So, people are still heading out to the shops in their hundreds of thousands, probably millions. The question is what’s happening to encourage an increasing number to stay away.

Clearly, the selection of shops to tempt people to the high street is a major issue, so the imminent raft of closures of household names presents an obvious threat.

One solution the Sunday Times offered was a cut in business rents to reflect declining revenues, something that sounds eminently sensible. You simply can’t go on charging a sector of the economy enduring long-term decline as if it was booming, and the bureaucrats that officiate over our high streets would do well to accept that.

As we heard from Travel Weekly readers when Mary Portas, the self-styled Queen of Shops, was appointed a special advisor to the government, parking restrictions are another major issue.

Policies devised when there was a need to limit or at least manage the number of vehicles coming to a high street just seem overly zealous, unfair and unfriendly when imposed in half empty car parks by Gestapo-like wardens employed by cash-strapped local authorities.

But those businesses intent on making the high street work can’t just continue to blame others and bemoan the tough hand that fate has dealt them.

As well as the growth of the internet, the problems the British high street is suffering are laid at the door of retail giants like Tesco by many. But its former boss Sir Terry Leahy was right when he told the ITT conference recently that the high street had to define what its role is in the future. It can’t expect to stick to a ‘medieval’ model.

Everyone at Travel Weekly sincerely hopes the dire warnings about the prospects for the high street don’t claim any travel victims. The reshaping of the British high street is happening whether we like it or not and no doubt the best travel agents will be there helping to forge its future.

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