James Max: How to save the high street

Forget Portas and her recommendations, LBC presenter James Max thinks he has the answers

Another retail casualty. Comet.

I wrote back in January about their problems. They won’t be missed.

Even if they return in another guise, the brand and format is feeble. Killed by the internet or by poor management? Or killed by a lack of customer service? A combination of all three.

Will you miss any of the high street stores and retailers that have gone bust in this recession? No. Arguably we’ll be better off without them. So the cry will go up… Oh, but what about Woolworth’s? What about Woolworth’s. All that store did was teach a generation of youths how to nick stuff without being caught and a younger generation of toddlers how to pull things off shelves, scream and make a mess.

Honestly, I am surprised the shop lasted as long as it did. However, there is a much more serious issue to tackle. If we don’t fix the high streets of Great Britain, within 30 years, they’ll be gone.

Action is required now.

Not just by the government but by you as well.

The British high street is a wonderful resource. Through a combination of dreadful planning laws, local authorities using them as a cash cow, oppressive corporate tax structures and an uneven playing field, we have allowed wanton destruction to take place.

If we are not careful we’ll do what we do so well in Britain. Build something up only to pull it to pieces.

With nearly 285,000 retail outlets in the UK and retail sales of over £300 billion every year, retail is a massive sector in our economy.

I am not suggesting that we won’t be spending in 30 years. Far from it. I am sure we will continue to spend. Increasingly online or in bigger retail units in ever larger shopping centres.

I don’t have a problem with that. I rather like a big shopping centre. It serves a purpose, houses big name retailers and brands and can be a pleasurable experience. However, I also like to get away from omnipresent identikit brands. I often try to seek out personal service, artisan shops, individual taste and design, quality to experience the art of retail.

“It’s important that we don’t try to fix something that cannot be fixed”

The government recognised there was a problem. So they tried to hire an expert.

They were busy, so Mary Portas got the call.

I have a lot of time for Mary. Her TV shows are excellent and I “get” the need to have a face onboard to drive a process, the problem is simple. Whilst her ideas may make a small difference to a small number of high streets, we have totally ignored the real problems. And if anyone thought £50 million would make any difference at all, they are clearly not fit to govern.

Why don’t people go to high streets any more?

It’s quite simple really. Parking is difficult, the retail mix is often poor, service is lacking, prices aren’t that competitive, often they are an uninspiring place to be, it’s not that convenient and on a windy or wet day it’s more of a punishment than a pleasure.

Combined with the ease of going to a shopping centre where parking is often free, the environment is pleasant and most importantly the retail mix is well thought out.

But those are the symptoms. In essence the high street must serve a different and new function. That means laws and legislation need to change to facilitate the transition.

It’s important that we don’t try to fix something that cannot be fixed.

“If you don’t make the effort to seek out entrepreneurial local traders. Then don’t be upset if you wake up tomorrow and they aren’t there”

What’s the point in trying to replicate what shopping centres or big box retailers or even the internet is doing? There isn’t.

The high street needs to be reinvented. Every high street needs to become a destination for a broad range of individual shops, restaurants, small business and specialist services.

We need government action.

National and local taxes are the biggest obstacles to change. Sole retailers with, say, less than 5 units should have preferential tax treatment. The advantage of being settled in an offshore tax haven should not be allowed to undercut the plucky sole trader.

The practice of raising business rates based on a notional annual rent should go. Local tax and national tax should be based on performance rather than capital value or rent.

And another important change is to our property law. Offer incentives to landlords who offer leases to less financially secure tenants. Further incentives to those who offer leases based on turnover and on flexible terms.

People often ask why we have ended up with the same high street names up and down the country. Simple. As a landlord whom would you rather have in one of your properties? A sole trader? Or a national multiple? Exactly.

But I am not finished yet.

Incentives to set up a family business that can be handed on through the generations without generating a massive tax bill every time someone dies.

Councils have to end their pernicious parking policies. Transport too and from the high street by all forms of public and private transport need to be encouraged. Simply by offering free parking to those who live nearby and offering reasonably priced facilities for those further away would help.

And then there’s the Use Classes Order. Gradually eroded over time, each high street should be able to restrict not only use, but also national multiples should have a restriction on their presence.

I am a huge fan of big and successful businesses. Up to a point. The balance is too far in their favour. That’s leading to an uneven playing field and preventing new entrants.

As Adam Smith and Napoleon both commented, “Britain is a nation of shopkeepers”. At this rate, we won’t be. For a nation that has done so much to develop the retail experience and opportunity whilst building its economy and social existence on a sophisticated method of trading, to forget those trading roots would not only be a shame but an economic catastrophe.

However, there is one last piece of the jigsaw.

You. If you don’t go to your local shops. If you don’t make the effort to seek out entrepreneurial local traders. Then don’t be upset if you wake up tomorrow and they aren’t there.

Readers' comments (2)

  • Totally agree that it's 'use it or lose it'. If politically & economically we want entrepreneurship & job creation we need to support small independent businesses. As consumers this widens choice and makes the high street vibrant.

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  • Great article and I agree with much of what you say, especially about Comet they failed because their business image was tired and variable product knowledge and the impact of the internet.

    As a business adviser, mentor, trainer and consultant, I am currently helping a group of independent retailers in one area of my local town, which thanks to Her Majesty the Queen recently became a City. You might think that our fast growing City would have no problems. In fact John Lewis PLC and Waitrose have both just obtained planning permission to build new stores creating large numbers of jobs. But if you look a little deeper there are problems for the retailers.

    The group that I am currently helping came to together to try and ensure their survival. Their problems became worse a few years ago when the bus station was redeveloped and during that development the road through their part of town was closed except for taxis and buses.

    Once the bus station was built, complete with a large block of mixed luxury and social housing flats above, it was decided that the road restriction would stay. Previously access from the other direction was restricted and a bus route had been redirected.

    If you couple these measures with the recession it’s no surprise that they have found that footfall has dropped together with their incomes.

    The good news is that they are fighters and have formed a local retail business association. Discussions with the Council and County Council have achieved an experimental lifting of the change to the bus route with an associated opening of the road at that end, but not the restriction at the bus station.

    We are now trying to get free parking on Sundays and a one hour, on road, free parking concession.

    A website has been built to showcase the member’s shops and businesses and we are now planning events through out the year such as a Pre-Christmas Market, Spring and Summer events.

    You are right that the rates issue is a live concern for many retailers, also many are family businesses. Years of experience of advising family businesses has shown that often they do not survive the generations because the children see the struggle that their parents have gone through and would sooner work for someone else. The other issue is that often there is no succession plan in place and the children have never been coached and developed to take charge when retirement time comes.

    In other areas of the City Centre I have seen shops and salons come and go within months. The problem with new retailers is often poor business planning and a lack of marketing skills.

    One case recently was a new concept beauty salon where the owners had obviously spent a huge sum of money on equipment, fitting out decoration and a flash shop front displaying their Twitter and Facebook page details. The trouble is there were virtually zero messages being sent out. After a month they had closed with their website still under construction.

    I would like to see landlords request a copy of the prospective tenant’s business and marketing plan if they are a start-up and for the landlord to be able to refer the prospective tenant to a business adviser to get some guidance before opening up.

    As for independent retailers working together I can recommend two initiatives.

    The first is a self help band of businesses, Enterprise Rockers, http://enterpriserockers.co.uk/ they encourage inter trading and local shopping as well as acting as a pressure group.

    The second is Independent Retailer Month, http://www.independentretailermonth.co.uk/ this national initiative encourages independent retailers to promote themselves and raises their profile with the consumer.

    So there is a lot that can be done but these retail businesses need guidance and with help from the Local and County Councils much can be achieved. But the biggest form of help is the support of the local consumer, they need your custom!

    Alan Briggs @BizzyBizExpert

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