What did the Mary Portas letter to John Lewis say and why did she send it?
The letter – which has received much support and media coverage – warns its two recipients that John Lewis has “let go of its soul” and implores them to recommit “to the principles John Lewis was founded on: common ownership; the improvement of partners’ lives; collective responsibility; and true enduring value”.
Portas’s criticism was prompted by news that, after 70 years of trading, the John Lewis group was planning to water down its 100% employee-owned model in the wake of store closures, lay-offs and scrapped bonuses triggered by the group’s £234m full-year loss over the last 12 months.
John Lewis’s woes form part of an all-too-familiar picture of decline on the UK’s once-thriving high streets. Retail premises, formerly home to Habitat, HMV, Dorothy Perkins and other brands that today are either defunct or available exclusively online, now often stand empty and boarded up or have been taken over by betting shops.
What are other leaders saying about the UK high street?
For some the balance of the high street has tipped too far one way, with a increase in just one type of shop open and a lack diversity. For example, the residents of Erdington, a suburb of Birmingham, are trying to prevent the opening of the eighth betting shop on their local high street.
They are supported in this endeavour by their local Labour MP, Paulette Hamilton, who stated in a recent interview with the Guardian that the “‘heart and soul has been taken out of our community” now that Erdington’s high street had been turned “from a shopping centre into a betting centre”.
It is a lament echoed in many parts of the UK, including Boston in Lincolnshire, where there are 15 places to gamble within a square mile and where locals have managed to thwart the opening of a sixteenth and seventeenth betting shop. As reported in the Big Issue in February, they don’t want their little market town becoming “a mini Las Vegas” now that the gambling companies have rushed in to fill the vacuum left by the departed, more traditional and family-friendly shops.
Whilst of course, there’s room for betting shops, consumers need a pick and mix of shops and experiences to keep them engaged with the high street and that’s something that only a diverse high street can offer.
And it is not just retailers who have literally shut up shop and abandoned the UK high street en masse. Banks are also closing branches in their droves, as recently reported in the Mirror and elsewhere. In March this year, Shadow Digital Minister Alex Davies-Jones warned MPs that high street branch closures were reaching “epidemic” proportions.
As Davies-Jones told the Commons, “The unprecedented rate at which [banks] are vanishing from the high street is not only holding local economies back, but making life challenging for the most vulnerable people in society who depend on easily accessible face-to-face banking.” Her words only serve to add to the already widely-held sentiment that the UK’s high streets are in a very steep nose-dive that may prove impossible to pull out of.
Is this really the end of the UK high street?
We don’t believe that this is necessarily the case, though urgent action is needed if the UK’s shopping precincts are ever to recover as socially and commercially important public spaces that bring communities together and help the local economy to thrive.
How can the UK high street recover and get people back to the shops?
If we were to be made ‘retail tzar’ – as Mary Portas was by the Cameron government back in 2011 – our action recommendations to breathe fresh life into the UK’s ailing high streets would centre around an approach that acknowledges the realities of 21st-century life. What do we mean by this? First and foremost, we mean that nostalgia can have little place in any realistic plan to reinvigorate moribund shopping precincts: the internet and the plethora of online shopping opportunities it affords consumers are not going anywhere, and it is impossible to turn back the clock to a simpler age when bricks-and-mortar retailers had the luxury of a captive audience.
The UK high street must therefore evolve if it wants the public to come flooding back. High streets need to become ‘destination centres’, moving away from ‘traditional’ shops towards a stronger focus on leisure and hospitality offerings such as bars, cafes and restaurants.
A fresh approach is also needed in the way that high street real estate is utilised by retailers. For example, large department stores that are no longer viable should be divided into smaller units. These could then be used as showrooms, especially for boutique goods such as tech and fashion. This will allow retailers to demonstrate their goods to customers yet still allow consumers to go away and make their purchases online.
The newly created, smaller units could also be used for artisan workshops or experiences. This would allow customers to gain a better understanding of the craftsmanship and provenance of the goods, thus providing an additional incentive to purchase. Savvy retailers could offer experiences that allow customers to try their hand at making their own goods – pottery classes, decorating products by hand, etc. – before buying the ‘real thing’ from the associated shop.
As customers can now buy pretty much anything online, retailers must incentivise customers to visit physical stores. Retailers should reflect on the customer experience and consider whether they are in the value market, where they are simply competing on price, or whether they should be offering an enhanced customer experience. This could include anything from samples of food and drink to VIP and personal fitting services – in other words, anything that makes customers feel that little bit special and provides them with an experience that they simply cannot have through the screen of their phone or computer.
Another innovative way to make the most of empty retail spaces is to transform excess storage spaces into storage points for goods ordered online. This helps with ‘last-mile’ delivery, as customers can either collect their purchases from a hub (Argos-style!) or benefit from last-mile deliveries made from these hubs, as these are often located near population centres.
Our final suggestion for revitalising the high street – and one that couldn’t be more timely, given the ongoing housing crisis in the UK – is to transform obsolete or vacant retail premises into high-quality residential accommodation. The rooms above large, ground-floor retail units are often vacant – these ‘dead spaces’ could and should be converted into spacious and convenient housing. When people live near to centres of employment and in proximity to much-appreciated amenities, this not only boosts their quality of life but also cuts down on travel and the pollution associated with mass commuting. And it gives a new lease of life to our faded and careworn high streets.
To make the above suggestions a reality, the UK’s planning systems need to be overhauled to streamline them and make it easier to allow changes of use or development. And incentives need to be created for both tenants and landlords to free up vacant properties that may be subject to the same lease as a larger building. This could be achieved through business rates incentives for redeploying empty high street property, thereby ensuring that every square foot of town centre property is used productively and is adding something to the local economy.
These steps could reverse the trend of decline and see this country’s high streets enjoy a second Renaissance, and we’re hearing whispers that change like this is happening… so let’s see where the high street goes over the next 12 months.