High street retailers teeter on the brink

With every rent day, the threat of redundancy.

"Lady Day" might sound like a nice day at the races but traditionally it was the Feast of the Annunciation, and the first of the four traditional English quarter days. The "Lady" here being the Virgin Mary. Falling on March 25, Lady Day was even New Year’s Day up to 1752.

Every rent quarter day brings speculation that another retailer will go under, especially after the first quarter day on 1 January this year heralded the administrations of HMV, Jessops and Blockbuster. Yet there were notably fewer major administrations following the most recent rent quarter day at the end of March.

Of course, a rent day does not automatically trigger retail insolvencies. The high profile casualties we have seen since October, with the exception of fashion retailer Republic, have been retailers with a business model that has been challenged by the e-commerce market, such that the delivery method of their core products to customers has fundamentally altered. They cannot survive on the scale they operated in previously in a principally bricks and mortar operation. (Republic’s failure in February was because it was burdened by too many loss-making stores as customer’s buying habits became more budget focused, rather than being challenged by technology.)

In general, this isn’t the case of a fashion retailer buying the wrong ranges for a few seasons or failing to brighten up its stores. They face a technology competitor to their business model that is far greater than any business competitor. These challenges cannot be dodged and a rent day bill might just be the last straw, but is not the cause.

The number of stores closed by retail high street chains in Britain has soared over the past 12 months and the start of this year felt like the end of 2008 when Woolworths collapsed. According to research by the Local Data Company, there were a total of 7,337 store closures in 2012. It seems the retail world has just had another "clear out" this year.

Those are stark statistics but completely relatable when you factor in two big phenomena threatening the high street. The first is technology via the internet, the second, the significant expansion of out-of-town shopping centres, which has made it almost impossible for local high streets to compete.

The cost of parking is one reason the high street cannot compete with out of town shopping. Moreover, 30 years ago, high streets had butcher’s shops, greengrocers, off-licences, chemists and a range of clothing and fashion retailers. Retailers with financial clout have moved out to the shopping centres – and more will follow this year and next. The anchor stores are deserting the high street, as shown by the number of retail chains closing their stores there. This leaves the shops that remain in an even more difficult predicament.

Despite these challenges, high-street retailers can still prosper if they adapt. All too often in my job I see management sticking to what they know – what was once a successful formula – in the face of all the evidence telling them they need to change. Unfortunately, by the time we are called in, it’s usually too late. As individuals’ shopping habits change, retailers must too. That means multi-channel buying – not just static internet buying – but mobile shopping as well. Online does not have to be completely divorced from bricks and mortar. Shops and online can work well together. “Click and collect” has given a life line to stores such as Argos. John Lewis has excelled in using technology to get people into their shops.

Many stores have become too big and inefficient, unable to attract the footfall in relation to rent. Retailers can instead reduce the size of their stores and operate them like large vending machines. A customer can go in and put their card in a giant jukebox – where they can pick a film or return it for example. If they are late, it automatically charges their credit card. There are ways for retailers to continue to prosper with some restructuring.

Those shops that remain may benefit from the others’ decline and closure. Despite the headline cases, corporate insolvency rates remain historically low, especially when contrasted with previous recessions and periods of recovery. Low insolvency rates are good for employment, which is a key concern following the many retail administrations. In fact just under half of jobs in the major retail insolvencies survived the administration process in 2012.

However, while businesses exist in distress and corporate insolvencies remain low, the economy continues to stagnate. A healthy economy requires activity at both ends of the economic cycle – it needs business growth and expansion, as well as the recycling of capital following business failure. The high street can survive if it changes and adapts, and deals with greater challenges than the quarterly rent bill.

This story first appeared on economia

Photograph: Getty Images

This is a news story from economia.

Photo: Getty Images
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There are risks as well as opportunities ahead for George Osborne

The Chancellor is in a tight spot, but expect his political wiles to be on full display, says Spencer Thompson.

The most significant fiscal event of this parliament will take place in late November, when the Chancellor presents the spending review setting out his plans for funding government departments over the next four years. This week, across Whitehall and up and down the country, ministers, lobbyists, advocacy groups and town halls are busily finalising their pitches ahead of Friday’s deadline for submissions to the review

It is difficult to overstate the challenge faced by the Chancellor. Under his current spending forecast and planned protections for the NHS, schools, defence and international aid spending, other areas of government will need to be cut by 16.4 per cent in real terms between 2015/16 and 2019/20. Focusing on services spending outside of protected areas, the cumulative cut will reach 26.5 per cent. Despite this, the Chancellor nonetheless has significant room for manoeuvre.

Firstly, under plans unveiled at the budget, the government intends to expand capital investment significantly in both 2018-19 and 2019-20. Over the last parliament capital spending was cut by around a quarter, but between now and 2019-20 it will grow by almost 20 per cent. How this growth in spending should be distributed across departments and between investment projects should be at the heart of the spending review.

In a paper published on Monday, we highlighted three urgent priorities for any additional capital spending: re-balancing transport investment away from London and the greater South East towards the North of England, a £2bn per year boost in public spending on housebuilding, and £1bn of extra investment per year in energy efficiency improvements for fuel-poor households.

Secondly, despite the tough fiscal environment, the Chancellor has the scope to fund a range of areas of policy in dire need of extra resources. These include social care, where rising costs at a time of falling resources are set to generate a severe funding squeeze for local government, 16-19 education, where many 6th-form and FE colleges are at risk of great financial difficulty, and funding a guaranteed paid job for young people in long-term unemployment. Our paper suggests a range of options for how to put these and other areas of policy on a sustainable funding footing.

There is a political angle to this as well. The Conservatives are keen to be seen as a party representing all working people, as shown by the "blue-collar Conservatism" agenda. In addition, the spending review offers the Conservative party the opportunity to return to ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ as a going concern.  If they are truly serious about being seen in this light, this should be reflected in a social investment agenda pursued through the spending review that promotes employment and secures a future for public services outside the NHS and schools.

This will come at a cost, however. In our paper, we show how the Chancellor could fund our package of proposed policies without increasing the pain on other areas of government, while remaining consistent with the government’s fiscal rules that require him to reach a surplus on overall government borrowing by 2019-20. We do not agree that the Government needs to reach a surplus in that year. But given this target wont be scrapped ahead of the spending review, we suggest that he should target a slightly lower surplus in 2019/20 of £7bn, with the deficit the year before being £2bn higher. In addition, we propose several revenue-raising measures in line with recent government tax policy that together would unlock an additional £5bn of resource for government departments.

Make no mistake, this will be a tough settlement for government departments and for public services. But the Chancellor does have a range of options open as he plans the upcoming spending review. Expect his reputation as a highly political Chancellor to be on full display.

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR