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

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This is a news story from economia.

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When Theresa May speaks, why don’t we listen?

Not many Prime Ministers have to repeat themselves three times. 

Theresa May is the candidate of Brexit and market panic. She ascended to the highest office because, in the fraught weeks after Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, she represented a safe haven for nervous Conservative MPs, the dependable family mutual that remained open while all along the Conservative high street, her rivals were shutting up shop.

Her popularity, as revealed in high poll ratings outside Westminster, too, owes itself to the perception that she is a serious politician in serious times, happily installed atop the ship of state to guide it through the rocky waters of Brexit negotiations.

May’s premiership has been defined by market panics of a different kind, however. The first is in the currency markets, where sterling takes a tumble whenever she pronounces on Britain’s future relationship with the European Union, falling both after her conference speech on 2 October and after her start-of-the-year interview with Sophy Ridge on 8 January. The second is in the opinion pages, where May’s stock oscillates wildly from bullish to bearish.

In the first months of May’s government, she was hailed as an Anglo-Saxon counterpart to Angela Merkel: a solid centre-right Christian democrat who would usher in a decade of conservative hegemony. More recently, she has been compared to Gordon Brown because of her perceived indecisiveness and repeatedly accused of failing to spell out what, exactly, her government’s Brexit objectives are.

In a symbol of the splits on the right between the Brexiteers and Remainers, the Economist, that bible of free-market globalisation and usually a reliable tastemaker as far as Westminster groupthink is concerned, began 2017 by dubbing the Prime Minister “Theresa Maybe”. Though May’s Downing Street is less concerned with the minutiae of what goes on in the public press than David Cameron’s, the contention that she is indecisive was a source of frustration.

There is an element of truth in the claim that May still views the world through a “Home Office lens”. One senior minister complains that Downing Street considers the Ministry of Justice as a “rogue outpost” of May’s old stomping ground, rather than a fully fledged department with its own interests and perspectives.

Yet even the most authoritarian of home secretaries would struggle to secure a conviction against May on the charge of opacity as far as her Brexit approach is concerned. She has hit the same grace notes with the reliability of a professional musician: Brexit means freedom from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice and control over Britain’s borders, two objectives that can only be achieved as a result of Britain’s exit not only from the EU but also the single market. This was confirmed on 17 January in the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech in London.

David Cameron used to say that he would never have “a people”. Certainly, there is no Cameroon tendency in the country at large to match the generation of council house residents that became homeowners and lifelong Conservatives because of Margaret Thatcher and Right to Buy. However, there is, unquestionably, a Cameroon people or faction to be found at almost every rung of London’s financial services sector or at editorial meetings of the Economist, though it as at the Times and the Sun where the treatment of May is at its most noticably rougher than in the Cameron era. 

Michael Gove, her old rival, is not only employed as a columnist by the Times; he enjoys the confidence and admiration of Rupert Murdoch. That the Times secured the first British interview with Donald Trump was a coup for Murdoch, an old associate of the president-elect, and for Gove, who conducted it. It left May in the unlovely position of making history as the first prime minister to be scooped to a first meeting with a new American president by a sitting MP in modern times. It also attested to a source of frustration among May’s allies that she is, for all her undoubted popularity, still ignored or doubted by much of the right-wing establishment.

That condescension partly explains why her words are often listened to briefly, acted on hastily and swiftly forgotten, hence the pound’s cycle of falling when she makes an intervention on Brexit and rising shortly thereafter. The Lancaster House speech was designed to break this pattern. Downing Street briefed the most potent paragraphs at the weekend so that the markets could absorb what she would say before she said it.

As a result, the pound rallied as May delivered her speech, which contained a commitment to a transitional deal that would come into effect after Britain has left the EU. Some financiers believe this arrangement could become permanent, which once again demonstrates how much they underestimate May’s ability to enforce her will.

Being underestimated by Cameron’s people, in Westminster and the City, has the unintended effect of shoring up Theresa May’s position. A prolonged and sustained bout of panic would increase the pressure for a soft landing, but its absence makes it harder for Labour to oppose her effectively, although it has largely acquiesced to the Tory plan for Brexit, at least as far as membership of the single market is concerned. 

Yet for all the plaudits that the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech attracted, for all her undoubted popularity in the country, she is in the anomalous position of being a Conservative Prime Minister who has priorities on the European stage other than the preservation of the City of London and to whom Rupert Murdoch is not a natural ally.

As such, she may find that her deadlier enemies come from the right.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.