/ Shopping

Is your town centre looking ghostly?

Closed sign on boarded up shop

Britain’s high streets are in crisis – a record 14.5% of shops in town centres were vacant at the end of 2010. Not only do we have to put up with cloned streets, we’re in danger of our towns ‘coming like a ghost town’.

A new report by the Local Data Company has found that vacant shops in UK’s town centres have risen 2009’s 12% to 14.5% by the end of 2010.

Perhaps that’s not the biggest jump, but not only is it a record, it’s tragic compared to 2008’s slender 5% figure.

The North-South divide

And it gets worse the further north you go, with an average of 16.5% vacancy in northern and midland regions (12.3% of town centre shops are empty in the South). But there’s one town that’s bucking this north-south divide – almost four in ten of Morgate’s shops are boarded up in Kent.

Matthew Hopkinson of the Local Data Company commented on their findings:

‘The sad reality is that the number of vacant shops are increasing with certain areas of the country severely impacted and unlikely to recover.’

Well that’s incredibly depressing. And even if our towns do recover when these dire financial times eventually improve, it’s likely that empty shop floors will be replaced by supermarkets, betting shops, fast food chains and banks.

Who or what’s to blame?

We’ve already complained about this county’s towns being clones of one another. And the onslaught of bookies are the hardest to bear – there are now over 2,100 betting shops in London alone.

The simple fact is that we’re just not visiting local shops as much as we used to, mainly due to bigger chains’ cheaper prices and the advance of online retailers. Plus, with the current financial climate, those shops that once made our streets unique are forced to close down, replaced by McDonald’s, Starbucks and Tesco.

However, Which? Conversation commenter John doesn’t think this is a new problem:

‘I don’t think consumers can be “blamed” for deserting their local shops, although there undoubtedly is a cause and effect, but it is an evolutionary process that has been going on for centuries.’

Have you seen a transformation of your local high street, with more and more shops closing down? Are we to blame or should the finger instead be pointed at the recession, determined chains and online retailers?

Dan James says:
16 February 2011

I go out of town shopping simply for the parking trying to find somwhere to park in the towns is horrendus and the amount of time and petrol used to find a place is better spent travelling to your local super market therebye ending up with much less ********* local bus services are a joke so very little room to maul with a weekly shop– and the fares prohibitive. One wonders what happened to Mr Two Jags the one that was going to revolutionise bus travel and bring life back to our towns and villages— seems like just another wind bag from that political pigsty they call Wesminster

Katharine Perera says:
16 February 2011

For some time I have been concerned that Which? is, perhaps unwittingly, contributing to the ‘ghostly town centres’ you rightly deplore. If whenever you review products you always list the supplier that offers the cheapest price and if, in your money-saving tips, you encourage readers to purchase goods and services online, you are not taking account of the social and environmental costs of this pattern of purchasing. If alongside information about cheapest prices you occasionally pointed out that there are advantages to being able to see what you are buying and that it is convenient to be able to take something back to a local supplier if things go wrong, you wouldn’t be giving such a uni-dimensional view of the supplier-purchaser relationship.

Out of town shopping can be a problem, because everyone is there, looking for parking spaces and queuing to get in and out. However, it’s still more convenient than the town centre where expensive car parks are not close to shops, streets are for residents only and the range of shops is poor. Cities and large towns are better in this respect because the big stores are all there, under cover. Parking is expensive but the advantages offered by Cardiff, for example, still draw the crowds.
Perhaps it is time to recognise that with the proliferation of out of town sites, our physical (as opposed to on line) shopping habits have changed for ever. Having recognised that, planners should consider what purpose any normal town centre should play in its community. Should they provide the locality with entertainment in the form of cinemas, clubs, theatres, libraries and museums? Should they be the centre for solicitors, estate agents, banks, building societies, dentists and specialist shops? Is this the place for the job centre and the council offices? Is there a place for the local market- inside and out? Once the public know what the town centre is for, what its recognised purpose is, it will fit in to the lifestyle of the area instead of being considered the poor, run down and neglected relation that everyone complains about, bemoaning its demise. I remember the days when one took a daily shopping basket to the Home and Colonial, the green grocer, the butcher, baker and the ironmonger and had a chat with everyone as they served you. There was time to gossip in the street. Lives are so busy these days that it’s the one stop food shop and a weekend trawl round the mall for other essentials. Of course, those actually living in the towns can make them their vibrant centres by using the bars and cafes and other facilities instead of motoring to the mall. Town centres are not the place to play catch up and try to compete with the embedded infrastructure that has grown around them, they need a presence and purpose of their own. It’s down to the locals to find this and decide what it should be.

Peter Powell says:
19 September 2017

You’ve pretty well hit the nail on the head Vynor. In Crewe the council allowed a former out-of-town speedway track be turning into a shopping centre. The result now is that the town centre is gradually becoming devoid of shops and I’m not sure if a planned re-development will cure this. There is only so much shopping that people need to do and councils often see motorists as a milk cow for parking charges.

My town is nimby ridden and has too many shops. This means that anyone considering taking on a shop is going to think twice as he might have trouble selling it on to someone who wants to change the use

Sorry for the two typos. for “it’s” please read “its” where appropriate. Definite dog house- should know better!.

It’s time many town centres re-invented themselves and dragged themselves into the 21st century. Instead of councils and retailers moaning about online and out of town competition they need to fight back!

Firstly, councils need to abandon that outdated Utopian dream that we’re all going to hop onto public transport and rid the roads of cars. That is simply not going to happen until public transport is convenient, accessible, cheap and clean to the vast majority of the potential town centre market. And what happens if you reduce congestion? People get back in their cars… So, reduce car parking charges to accommodate most of us who drive and have the disposable income necessary to help sustain the retail industry.

What would councils rather have – a. some income from expensive half empty car parks and less business rates income from fewer business, or b. the same income from full car parks (through cheaper rates) and more income through business rates as more businesses will be open?

Secondly, retailers need to improve their customer service. Provide the service people expect in the 21st century – that’s what will set them apart from cheaper online retailers. On a recent trip to Bath, for example, we couldn’t help but notice how helpful, knowledgeable and friendly all the staff were in every shop/restaurant we visited. It just made us want to part with our hard-earned cash. Any coincidence that most were students or foreigners? Compare that to my local Cheltenham where most staff just cannot be bothered to raise so much as a smile, gaze at the floor and leave you waiting. I’d shop more at nearby friendlier Gloucester but the shops there aren’t great.

Thirdly, local authorities need to take a good look at the demographics of their town. More affluent places have better shops – which are to the benefit of ALL consumers. For example, more affluent places tend to be university town. Universities attract and, more importantly, RETAIN brains, resulting in graduates, leading to better jobs, leading to people with more money and spending power. Also, perhaps controversially, compare academic achievement against ethnicity and then look at the quality of towns/cities and compare that against their ethnic make up. And before anyone jumps on me, I am not implying for a single moment that the academic achievements of the majority white population are greater than the rest (because they’re not) – look deeper, look at the influence of certain cultures, both positive and negative.

Fourthly, it’s not just about occupancy rates. A town may have high occupancy but if that is made up largely of charity, ‘pound’ or betting shops it’s not much of an incentive to visit. Centres need variety to cater for all tastes and they need quality.

Finally, I’m not going to knock ‘clone’ shops. Personally, I don’t understand why Which? believe they’re a problem. Most offer good quality products of well-known brands at affordable prices. Compare that to many independents who may be friendly in their approach but can stock items of less well-known brands and be outdated and expensive.

Lots of good and important points there Fat Sam.

I regularly compare Sheffield (where I live) with Manchester (which I frequently visit, would you believe just to shop for relatively basic items).

Sheffield has suffered from incompetence beyond belief in terms of road and traffic planning for at least 3 decades to my certain knowledge. Recently an independent report showed that the traffic and road folk at the council were incredibly arrogant and refused to listen to their bosses, the public or even their own experienced staff. The result is that Sheffield is an utter nightmare and not just for cars but also for the public transport that the Council claim to have been encouraging for years.

On top of that about 40% of the city centre has recently been compulsorily purchased in order to facilitate a new “retail quarter” which met with vast public opposition from day one but was still forced through. That’s now dead in the water as a result of the economic situation and recently revealed information that the main developer was never all that keen to start with.

But enough council-bashing: the retailers have a big part to play in the responsibility too: on the convo about John Lewis’ price promise you’ll see that I and 1 or 2 others have commented on the poor service at JLP in Sheffield. JLP are almost certainly the largest shop left in the city. Then we have Boots the Chemist: there are several nationally sell-out Boots’ own products that the Sheffield branches either refuse to stock or are not allowed by their Head Office to stock, and yet you can pop over the Manchester to find the Boots in the Arndale heaving with these same lines.

Sam’s point about “brains” is also significant.

By contrast with Sheffield, you go over the Manchester (I don’t drive so I go by train) and you hop off at Piccadilly, and outside the railway station you can immediately get a FREE shuttle bus to any part of the city centre, or from within the Railway station you can get a tram to both the various parts of the city and many out-lying areas.

There are vast numbers of shops of all types an sizes, from huge names to niche market independents, and to suit all pockets.

If you do travel by car then I presume it is easy to get where you wish to as the roads are always full of traffic, but it is fast-flowing. There are many car parks (I don’t know if the pricing is competitive but they always seem to be busy) and there is plenty of on-street parking too.

And I doubt if Mancuneans are without brains so I don’t think a lack of the “brain factor” comes into the equation.

The other thing that strikes me about Sheffield is that it is constantly in a state of change – no one scheme is ever completed and allowed to run to see if it works before another 6 or 7 are started. THis makes the city continually noisy, dirty and inconvenient to navigate. It puts me off so I am sure it puts others off too.

But this isn’t a convo about the relative merits of Sheffield and Manchester and I know that there are many other towns and cities in as bad or far worse state than Sheffield and likewise many as good as or better than Manchester.

My honest opinion is that the real cause of the Ghostly cities is economic: in areas with a higher proportion of employed residents there is more money in the local economy and that enables things to be run properly and prosper. In areas of deprivation the opposite is true.

Isn’t the bottom line just that economics is behind this situation?

Have to disagree with third point. My town is affluent with high academic acheivement. As a result the kids go away to college and can’t afford local housing when they have dun educatin. There is a lack of high spending 16/30 yer olds which scares off traders as a result. Such frock shops as exist are retail morgues.

Julian R says:
28 March 2011

The “death of the high street” claims are grossly over exaggerated. Everyone seems to like to moan about supermarkets and chainstores killing off town centres. The fact is they are offering what people want. Supermarkets are successful because people shop there and spend there money there.Clone Shops or as we used to know them Chain Stores become chains of stores because they are successful and people spend there money in them. Similarly pound shops and charity shops clearly survive by providing things people want. Charity shops have a commercial advantage as they won’t have to pay commercial business rates like other retail businesses. Surveys looking at empty shop property only look at whats vacant on a given survey date, and true comparisons between town centre vacancy are impossible because there is no nationally accepted way of measuring town centre boundaries to enable them to be compared them on a like for like basis. The LDC survey uses a now obsolete methodology. The churn rate ( length of time a unit is vacant) is far more illuminating than the sample vacancy rates and whilst it may have slowed in many areas even in the north units are still being taken by new businesses as market forces kill of weak retailers new ones are there to take their place. If the 14 % vacancy rates suggested are all different units that have become vacant since the last survey 12 months earlier it may show there is a problem with business failure but it would also show that there are lots of other retailers willing to give it a go. All the doom and gloom from LDC is not a true reflection of the real picture stop listening to these doom mongers.

The Internet effectively killed the high street long ago, the recession did speed it up though. Out of nowhere people became very cost conscious and discovered how cheap ebay can be. A friend of mine paid £19.99 in a phone shop for a case for his phone, i then told him he could get the same case, new, with warranty, sealed, from Ebay for £2.69. Not having business rates, shop rent and staff costs means online warehouses can buy low, sell low and still make profit. The big chains offer people what they want, decent stuff at a low price. The likes of Tesco can sell pork chops for less than the local butcher pays to get them and in these times, the numbers are all that matters. By ‘killed off’ it means ‘the internet has shown the public how much extra they’ve been paying all these years’ the cat is out of the bag. I dont bother with shopping in town anymore, i pick things up at Argos which i reserved but thats about it.

Is there an algorithm for comparing the value of a high street against alternatives?

gabbyco says:
9 August 2012

Town centres are now dead. Sadly.