A FUTURE FOR THE HIGH STREET

...can the dwindling retail market be rebooted?

by Ellen Grace Jones
For many of us a trip to the high street these days constitutes little more than a few shufflings and clicks of a mouse. As a result, make no mistake, times are hard. The Great British high street has never faced a crisis more so than now. As the economy plunges, rents increase and retailers are competing with that little thing called the Internet, many established retailers and labels are struggling to tread water and remain trading. Which begs the worrying question: is there a future for the long-suffering high street?

"High streets are the heart of towns and communities" claims retail guru Mary Portas, "but without urgent action," she warns, they could "disappear forever." Solemn words indeed.

Back in March over 20 retailers including New Look, Schuh and Boots requested via the Property Managers Association that their landlords allow them to pay rents monthly, instead of quarterly. "Retailers that are in trouble may be able to persuade landlords to help them survive by paying monthly" states property law expert Richard Daffern of Pinsent Masons, "but for successful retailers to renegotiate mid-lease is a much harder sell. A round-robin letter is likely to be ignored, but where there is a relationship across a number of stores and an individual approach is made, the landlord is often willing to engage with the retailer," he said.

When brands that can't afford ever escalating rents lose out, the mega-corps that can, prevail, often at the cost of the character and identity of the area. Nothing illustrates this better than the recent uproar over purveyor of mass-produced, overpriced, frat boy attire, Abercrombie and Fitch moving into the sacred space of No.5 Savile Row, shamelessly co-opting prestige by clutching onto the Row's well tailored coat-tails.

Protestors from The Chap magazine wailed 'give three-piece a chance' declaring that the American sweatshop-using giant not only destroys the street's heritage and reputation, but bumps up the rents, sidling out less-well-off tailors. "We need businesses with good steady incomes, and we need steady rents - something that's very much in danger if deep-pocketed global behemoths start snapping up the shops along the street." claims Patrick Grant, director of Row tailor, Norton and Sons.

If it's tough for established brands and retailers to keep their doors open, it's even harder for young designers to start their own physical retail space. Up-and-coming designer Alice Nyong is gradually having success getting her scarf label, Nkoyo into the market. Already retailing through her own website, other online boutiques and Luna and Curious, she would love her own store. "It all depends on your product, but it's not easy for emerging designers to get a foot in the retail market in store. You need time, money and determination. However there's been a lot of focus on buying British, good design, and spending your money wisely through the recession. So I think this has seen a resurgence of good design actually being bought."

What advice would she give other emerging designers? "I'd say physical markets are a good place to start, such as Spitalfields. I think it's true that if you can sell on a market stall, you can sell anywhere! Again, it depends on the product, it's just about working at it to perfect what it is you're selling, and driving people there. I'm very much a believer of face to face contact as well as internet contact, so I think backing up emails with a quick casual visit is a valuable tactic."

According to research by Capgemini a record £68bn was spent online in 2011, up 16% on the previous year. “Figures suggest that shoppers are continuing to move their shopping online," Kevin Flood, CEO of retail expert Shopow said. "High street stores have had to pull out all the stops to make their shops attractive by reducing prices early and creating imaginative promotions to increase footfall and more activity at the tills."

And that's precisely what's happened. There's no denying the negative impact of e-com, however one could argue it's spurned a return to the more homespun, looking at the plethora of unique micro pop-up boutiques and installations over the last few years. Initially assumed a novelty retail trend, they appear here to stay and are popping-up (pardon the pun) in increasingly imaginative spaces; hotels, galleries and so on. They capture an essence of spontaneity and fun you won't find digitally.

According to trendwatching.com, "Pop-up retail fits right in with the Entertainment Economy, the Experience Economy, the Surprise Economy, and so on. It's about surprising consumers with temporary 'performances', guaranteeing exclusivity because of the limited timespan."

Then there's the opposite end of the retail scale with the success of gargantuan malls like Westfield. Polarised indeed to quaint, unique pop-up's, what they lack in soul and personality, Identikit shopping parks sure make up for in foot-fall. Westfield Stratford City equated for 70% of all new shopping centre space built in the UK in 2011 and is booming.

How are things faring overseas? It appears the market is equally as unsteady and hard to measure. GAP are set to close 21% of its stores in the US by 2013, yet paradoxically its Japanese peer Uniqlo is making a second attempt to crack the States (their first in 2005 failed) by opening 200 stores by 2020. This illustrates a key shift in what shoppers now want to consume. Uniqlo's minimalist merchandise and prices resonate far more with the global mood than GAP's pricier, outmoded brand of All-American casual wear.

Thriftier, more cautious and bargain-hunting we may be, above all, it's crucial we spend intelligently and invest in the future of both the stores in which we like to physically tread and the designers we deserve to see flourish.