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In My View by Eric Musgrave: Dark days are ahead

Eric Musgrave
05 December 2022

How many more fashion shops will we lose during the next 12 months? I always try and stay positive but all the indications are that 2023 is going to be a very tough year for many fashion retailers and their suppliers.

Nothing could be worse than the COVID-19 lockdown, we thought, but the economic gloom that has settled over the country since the summer has proved us wrong. Jeremy Hunt’s Autumn Statement on 17 November presented a bleak prospect for the next few years in the UK.

The Tories have been in power for 12 years yet they like to pretend today’s problems are nothing to do with their policies. Labour, meanwhile, still looks like someone who has woken from a long sleep and does not know where they are.

Sadly for anyone trying to run a retail (or manufacturing) business, both major parties (in England at least) have now started planning for the next election, even though it may be two years away, so we are unlikely to see any drastic (or helpful) action for the retail sector any time soon.

An interesting consideration is how many people are being really affected by the cost-of-living crisis. For months the media has been banging on about inflation, rising energy prices, rising costs and wage stagnation. It’s been a depressing read, watch and listen. My contacts in the independent sector tell me it has had a depressing effect on their takings.

Since the Queen died in early September footfall and spending has dropped off, often very markedly, and retailers I speak to are disheartened and concerned in equal measure.

A strongly-held view – and one I agree with – is that many consumers are over-reacting to the economic pressures. Despite the social inequalities in the UK (or maybe that should read because of the social inequalities in the UK) lots of people are pretty comfortably off and will remain so even with higher energy bills and a bigger bill for the weekly shop.

Not spending, however, has become fashionable and it will be down to retailers (and retailers) and their suppliers to ride out what could be a long storm.

Who is confident enough to bet spending will be anything like normal this Christmas? As always, the weather will play a crucial and inescapable role on fashion sales but this time round a bad winter will probably not help sales of coats, boots and knitwear – it will prompt people to keep hold of their cash for their utility bills.

I have been wondering what some high streets will look like by Easter 2023, which in England at least is two rent quarter days away. On my sporadic trips around the country, especially in north-east England and southern and central Scotland, I have been struck at the grim state of many of our local retail districts.

Traditional local high streets have been denuded of big names and even where independents survive in decent numbers the gaps among the properties around  them project a depressing atmosphere.

On a recent trip to Falkirk in central Scotland I was genuinely surprised to see how many large units on the main street are vacant. When big-space retailers like Marks & Spencer, Debenhams, Mothercare, Clarks, Next, Burton, Topman and Topshop in the fashion sector, plus Currys, Halfords and Carpetwise from elsewhere, go bust, close stores or relocate to edge-of-town parks there are few, if any, candidates to replace them.

This is a national problem and it is very difficult to see how it can be resolved when they are so many interested parties (or stakeholders, to use the grim modern term) to involve. Certainly the result in Falkirk is a plethora of empty units that blight the centre and do nothing to boost the area for the many surviving and striving retailers, large and small.

From another perspective, I was struck by the difference in dealing with the issue of vacancies when I visited the huge Metrocentre shopping centre in Gateshead, just south of Newcastle over the Tyne.

With more than 300 units covering over 2m sq ft (190,000sq m) of retail floor space, this is the second-biggest shopping centre in the UK after Westfield London at White City.

Since Brent Cross, the first standalone shopping centre in the country, was unveiled in Hendon, north London in 1976, the drain from the traditional high street has been relentless. When it was opened in 1986, Metrocentre was seen to represent the bright and bold future of British retailing.

Yet even mighty centres have not been immune to the pressures of the past few years. In June 2020 Metrocentre’s then-owner Intu Properties went into administration. It now has new owners called The Metrocentre Partnership, which includes the Church Commissioners and Singapore-based GIC Real Estate.

Bhs and Debenhams are among the big retailers that no longer occupy space at Gateshead. House of Fraser has been closed too. In all, on a quick tour in late November I counted, to my surprise, around 40 empty units, some in prominent positions on the five malls of the centre.

The big difference between here and Falkirk high street, however, was the Metrocentre’s voids were all covered with cheerful and colourful vinyls on the windows, effectively disguising the empty spaces. It seemed clear tenants had been moved round to ensure the worse runs of vacant units were on the upper floor and the far ends of the longer malls.

It shows what can be achieved when a shopping centre is managed by just one entity, unlike a town centre.

The Metrocentre

The Metrocentre in Gateshead

There is another significant difference to note: Metrocentre has free car parking for about 10,000 vehicles, while it is almost impossible to get a car into the centre of Falkirk.

I have never been a fan of indoor shopping centres. While I can admire them as commercial ventures and I understand their appeal to millions, for me they seem artificial and lacking in the atmosphere, of want of a better word, of a traditional high street.

That said, I was impressed with the Metrocentre on what was my first visit. It was fairly busy even on a Friday afternoon and its Christmas decorations were well done and uplifting. It also looked and felt clean and fresh, which is not a description you could apply to Falkirk.

With huge units for Primark, Next (as well as a fashion flagship it has a Beauty & Home store in the former Debs unit), M&S, Harrods Beauty (in the former HoF unit), T K Maxx, River Island, Zara and H&M, as well as dozens of other stores and eateries, this is still a vibrant retail destination.

I suspect good shopping centres are going to fare better than struggling town centres in the coming tough times. Good luck to everyone.

PS To anyone interested in retailing history, I can wholeheartedly recommend a new book called “London’s Lost Department Stores. A vanished world of dazzle and dreams”. Author Tessa Boase engagingly tells the stories of around 50 emporia in central and suburban London, from Dickins & Jones on Regent Street to Bearmans in Leytonstone.

The 192-page book contains some fascinating images of retailing from more than 100 years ago. It is reminder too that the sector has always been about change and evolution.

The book is published by Safe Haven Books with a cover price of £16.99.

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