Professor Chris EdgerProfessor Chris Edger, the author of ‘Effective Multi-Unit Leadership – Local Leadership in Multi-Situations’ and ‘International Multi-Unit Leadership’, is Professor of Multi-Unit Leadership at Birmingham City University where he researches and teaches the ‘art and science’ of high performance service-based retail, hospitality and leisure.

The narrative surrounding the debate about the ‘decline’ of the High Street has pointed the finger at a number of ‘guilty parties’ supposedly responsible for the chronically high levels of vacancy rates of some town centres (40 per cent in some cases – the national average standing at 14 per cent). Who are these miscreants? At the beginning of the debate the supermarket multiples were cast as the evil villains of the piece in the 1990s, stripping out independent retailers through price (ie grocers, butchers, bakers etc). Their movement into non-food areas such as clothing, books, audio, electrical in the early ‘noughties’ was also cited as having a further ‘hollowing’ out effect. More recently the debate has turned to behemoth on-line retailers who – not having to pay rates for space in the ‘cybersphere’ (or in some cases UK domiciled tax rates!) – can undercut their ‘bricks and mortar’ cousins. In both instances (ie the rise of edge-of-town hypermarkets and cyber trading) the Government and its local agencies have been accused of taking a lax approach to planning and an inflexible attitude to making the costs of doing business on the High Street more equitable for independents who (let us not forget) make up 67 per cent of High Street tenants! Initiatives such as providing small regenerative grants have been derided as using ‘peashooters against tanks’; particularly when these grants fail to be properly or speedily allocated due to ‘treacly’ bureaucracy!

But let’s get beyond the blame game! What are the solutions? As with most issues that involve ‘paradigm shifting’ moments within industries (in this case the move to omni-channel retailing) – choices are not binary but multi-agency/party. But who are the players involved and what can they do?

  • Landlords – the party which actually owns the space on the High Street must take a more realistic view on yields, covenant strength and onerous clauses/conditions (‘put and keep’, duration, upwards only reviews, quarterly rent collection etc). Although many landlords are taking far more pragmatic approaches (particularly during renewals) they often wait for tenants to ‘hit the rocks’ before they act flexibly. The good times are over; landlords must take far more creative approaches to retaining and enticing tenants (turnover rents which reflect seasonality, monthly collections, maintenance/insurance assistance etc).
  • National Government – most commentators agree that instead of instigating publicity-related grandstanding ‘nursery’ initiatives – the government of the day could do two things that would be of material benefit to the High Street. First, give the banks that they own sufficient license and liquidity to lend to small entrepreneurial local businesses – fast! Second, create a level playing field by either making the costs of doing business for those that occupy non-dom tax-free cyberspace more expensive and/or reduce the structural costs of doing business on the High Street (ie taxes and rates).
  • Local Authorities – these parties must take more effective strategic and operational approach to managing the High Streets under their aegis of control. From a strategic point of view they need to draw up coherent long-term plans that will facilitate revivals through infrastructure regeneration (transport hubs, CHEAPER car parking, integrated redevelopment etc). At an operational level their High Street management teams should focus upon environmental improvements (ie ‘clean and green’) and footfall generation through marketing points of difference and showcasing special events. Local authorities are also pivotal in granting planning approvals and licenses for tenants (such as hospitality and food service) who will provide a balanced/sustainable ‘mixed’ economy (ie day and night-time traffic).
  • Retailers – Both Chain Retailers and Independents must adapt to the new commercial reality of the High Street induced by an interconnected ‘disruptive trinity’; straitened economic conditions (reducing levels of discretionary spend), technological innovation (rapid ‘hyper digitalisation’) and changing consumer behaviour (promiscuous searching for quality AND value). Chain retailers must be adept at combining both ‘click and brick’ – going multi-channel whilst leveraging their core land-based estate in a different way; more ‘experiential stimulation’ and ‘retailtainment’ to drive traffic combined with a broader means of providing customer access (ie click and collect, drive-throughs, immediate delivery etc). Independents must also drive a multi-channel approach, showcasing their differentiated service offers alongside providing customers with more efficient order and collect/delivery systems.
  • Consumers – The final party in the High Street revival process is the consumer. In essence the consumer – whilst sympathetic to the plight of retailers – will vote with its feet. What is preferable – a one-stop shop retailtainment experience at a Regional Mall or a rummage around amongst thrift shops and dime stores in a tertiary location with high car parking charges! In the end the consumer will determine the plight of the High Street so the parties listed above (especially landlords, local authorities and retailers) have to understand what the (local) consumer values above all else and then satisfy their needs! To date many solutions have – whilst being well-intentioned – been insufficiently attuned to what the customer really wants. Surveys and reports on the High Street have produced voluminous amounts of data but few insights. High Street commentators and analysts perhaps need to reach beyond the rational ‘alibis’ that people give for abandoning the High Street to understand the real reasons for their flight!

It’s not too late for many of the solutions outlined above to be applied and – indeed – many of the cited interventions/innovations are being implemented in places. The point is this – stop the blame game! The parties that have a vested interest in the High Street surviving should get their skates on to create a new vibrant and thriving High Street model where it stands a chance of succeeding; or get real and turn the space over to alternative commercial/residential use!

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Chris Edger

Chris Edger

Professor of Multi-Unit Leadership at Birmingham City University