YOU have to hand it to Mary Portas. Unlike certain individuals drafted in by the Government to provide expert advice, she has delivered promptly on her promise. Her retail review has given us all something to think about, and in launching it, she gave a big compliment to our own Barnsley market, calling it “the best market she had been to”.
So thank you Mary. But I’m wondering whether all your efforts will amount to nothing more than several months’ foot-slog and an impressive set of 28 recommendations to bring the High Street back to life.
These include some hard ideas which should make ministers and local governments think – not least the argument that business rates should be reduced or made easier to manage for small retailers.
There are also some serious nuts and bolts suggestions which should be taken up, such as giving teeth to the leasehold code, which helps to protect businesses from unscrupulous landlords who up the rent with no comeback.
But there are two fundamental problems which must be addressed if this review is to make any difference at all – the attitude of the public to shopping, and the attitude of (some) independent retailers.
Are you going shopping today? Or tonight? If you are actually venturing out of the house rather than staying in with a nice warm laptop, do you want a shopping centre, where you can leave the car safely and for free, and wander from shop to shop without freezing? Or would you rather struggle to find a car-parking space in town, end up having an argument with a traffic warden, find that the small branch of the store you need hasn’t got what you want and won’t get it in til a week on Wednesday, and end up staggering to the café just as the “Closed” sign goes up?
It’s a basic question, but it is one that millions ask themselves every day. And every day, a huge proportion of these people follow their instincts and head for the nearest shopping centre. We’re spoilt for choice in Yorkshire, with Meadowhall and the White Rose Centre to name just two, and any number of retail parks and outlets.
Shopping in one of these places might bring on the requisite retail rush, but it is rarely inspiring, does nothing to promote any sense of community and usually ends up with a long and frustrating wait in traffic to get out and home. But if millions of people do it every weekend, some with religious ritual zeal, then it must be offering something.
If Mary and those ministers want just a fraction of these people to turn the car round and drive it to the town centre or the High Street instead, then they must be really ruthless about what motivates them.
We advocates of keeping it local can blah on all we like about the importance of supporting small shops and supporting communities, but it’s a numbers game. Unless urban areas have something to offer which can’t be found at the mall, the volume of shoppers will simply never be high enough to sustain them. And we should be realistic. The High Street can’t offer everything. But it can offer an experience.
This notion that these areas should be about more than shops, and offer a place for people to socialise and hang out is a nice one. It also chimes with the truth that our shopping habits are now so diverse, we will never go back to simple shopping trips dominated by a butcher, a baker and a travel agent.
If you look at places like Sheffield’s Ecclesall Road, you can see how it might work. But you can’t – and I am glad to see the review acknowledges this – roll out one blueprint across the country.
What works in Esher is not going to happen in Hull. Each town or village or suburb should be empowered to develop its own honest identity. And in Barnsley, if that means pound shops and three wisps of chiffon which call themselves a dress for the weekend on a market stall, then so be it.
Which brings me to those independent retailers. We are blessed in Yorkshire with some seriously creative entrepreneurs who have set up their own businesses and will bend over backwards to cater for their customers. But it is not always so. What about those shops which think it acceptable to close at quarter to four, just in time to miss the rush of potential customers leaving their offices? What about those shops which don’t open on a Sunday, when most people have the most leisure time to spend browsing? It is a but a short step from shutters down to “To Let” sign. I have friends who run shops, so I know it isn’t easy, but having a shop is all about a little thing called “service”.
Offer it, and customers will come from miles around. Ignore it, and they will jump in the car and drive for miles in the other direction. It doesn’t take a 28-point official review to tell us this. Just go shopping and see for yourself.