Changing face of our high streets - but will Norfolk and Suffolk’s shops survive?
- Credit: Archant
It can feel like a grim time to be a retailer. More and more of us are apparently shopping online at the click of a button, while supermarkets and online retailers appear to be doing their damndest to price the independents out of the market.
And if that's not bad enough, government efforts to cut red tape to help get empty buildings back into use, which came into effect this week, have incurred the wrath of the Local Government Association.
It fears that this risks creating a planning free-for-all, 'draining the life from high streets' turning independent gift shops into 'payday loan companies' while greengrocers 'could become betting shops' without the need for planning permission or public consultation.
This week a report by the Centre for Retail Research looked at how the retailing will change in the next five years – and it did not make pretty reading.
The Retail Futures study predicted that total store numbers will fall by 22pc, bringing with it around 316,000 job losses, while online sales were expected to rise from 12.7pc in 2012 to 21.5pc by the end of the decade. In the East of England store numbers are expected to fall from 23,600 to 18,484.
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Many businesses also complain of a red-tape burden dragging them down – whether it's business rents, HR legislation, or even town-centre parking, all placing a squeeze on already shrinking margins and raising alarms that the high street is becoming a place which is not for profit.
Yet there are some signs of hope from Norfolk retailers adapting to the changing world.
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Robert Hughes, managing director of Hughes Electrical Group – which has expanded its Lowesfoft outlet while also opening new stores in Beccles and Spalding, Lincolnshire, as well as getting ready to open a new outlet in North Walsham – said the business had been repositioning itselft in the last few years to make life easier for customers – particularly in the wake of 'click-and-collect services. 'Online has had clear effects which have been quite significant for retailers,' he said.
'Firstly it has improved price visibility for customers, which is a great benefit for customers, while businesses are selling at a lower margin than ever before. The only way to stay in business in that case is by increasing your turnover, but there will be less retailers.
'The other thing is click-and-collect. Customers want it and want to be able to come in and park their car. High streets aren't very well situated for that, so we have been re-positioning ourselves so that customers can do that.
Paul Adcock, managing director of Watton-based retailer Adcocks, said traders in the town had been encouraged to work together largely on the back of the work by the government's retail guru Mary Portas and her Portas Pilot initiatives.
'I don't feel depressed about the future,' he said. 'We set up a self-help group following the Mary Portas review to stimulate footfall in the high street.
'The first thing we did is a monthly entrepreneurs' market. There's been a very successful motor bike weekend which brought a lot of people into the town. We've been running it for just over a year now and it's helped bring more people into the town and keeping things vibrant and bring people into the town who wouldn't normally come in.
'As far as electrical stores are concerned the internet is a real challenge because of the uncompetitive pricing you get – that's the big issue. Without question they and the supermarkets keep burying nails in the high-street coffin, and what I would just like to see is a fairer playing field.'
Stefan Gurney, executive director of the Norwich Business Improvement District, said the city was leading the way by encouraging its use as a place to meet and socialise as well as just shop.
'For quite a while we have been moving away from the idea that Norwich is just a retail destination,' he said.
'There needs to be that synergy between the shops and the cafes and the theatres. We've been ahead of the curve and that's been reinforced in our lower levels of vacancy rates – while everyone else has been struggling with lower footfall, we have seen an increase of 5pc in the last five weeks.'
And not every business is shifting to the web only approach.
Ian McGregor, who set up an online business, Moda2Ride in Reepham, selling motorcycle clothing and accessories last year, is actively looking for a 'bricks-and-mortar' store in west Norfolk.
'It was always part of my business plan,' he said. 'Sales are booming at the moment, but the thing that suprises me is that even though I'm a purely online business, everybody wants the human touch, and I spend a lot of time on the phone to customers who have been on the website but have questions about the products. People want to feel comfortable and they want to come in and touch things so we are going to invest in that.'
And amid the doom and gloom it may be that human touch which will keep our high streets alive.