How can we give our high streets a sustainable future?

Retail Guru, Mary Portas, is set to work on our high streets. If you’ve seen her television programmes on small retailers, charity shops and customer service, she is a (retail) force to be reckoned with.

For two years I worked for the Eastleigh Town Centre Partnership, developing a small group of retailers into an organisation that could represent the interests of town centre businesses. During my two years I achieved a beginner’s understanding of the retail sector and the challenges that face high streets which, presumably, Mary Portas will seek to address.

Some points, then, on my beginner’s understanding of the high street:

High street retailers are either part of national or regional groups (including franchises) plus independently owned businesses, and this last group ranges from a single shop to a few shops placed in the immediate surrounding area. Whilst all retailers would say they have an interest in the high street where they are situated, the level and type of interest varies on the type of retailer. In practice, local managers of branded stores would usually have to refer high street issues, if they were directly affected by them, back to their head office, whereas locally owned businesses could become immediately involved.

If you are a branded retailer with a presence in a particular high street, I assume you are there because the local demographic will provide you with enough customers to make a profit on that store. However, I have also heard that even barely profitable stores will sometimes be retained to prevent a competitor filling the gap. Smaller high street businesses are there to make a living plus, hopefully, a profit as well.

All retailers want increased footfall. Branded stores can rely on national advertising to bring people to their stores. They will expect the local authority to provide a safe and clean environment, but the rest of it is down to them. Local businesses see things differently; not having large advertising budgets, they need people to come to their local high street as a destination and want far more from their local council than a safe and clean environment. They want marketing incentives, lower or special offers on parking charges and, if it was possible, reduced business rates.

A common criticism of high streets is that they are clones of each other: the same national brands selling the same nationally promoted products. This criticism is easily countered in that if customers didn’t want the stuff on sale, they wouldn’t buy it. The smaller retailers provide the variety that, I believe, customers seek from a high street. But to sustain our high streets, these retailers will need to stay in business and many are not.

I think that smaller retailers need to work together for the prosperity of their high street and there are numerous ways to achieve this, but a start is a well supported town centre partnership or similar group. Local authorities have a role to play in this and should be an active member of any partnership. Where Mary Portas will have some useful clout is influencing government to provide funding for incentives for sustainable high streets. It will be interesting to see what happens.


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