Published on 8 - February - 2012
High street brands "locked in a spiral of decline"A new report on the rate of shop vacancies over the past year has highlighted 'weak housing market activity' as one of the factors behind administrations in the home improvement retail sector.
Officials from the Local Data Company say the 48,000 empty shops in Britain are 'here to stay'
The report, put together by the Local Data Company, reveals that shop vacancy rates stabilised at 14.3% in 2011, but that the "wide differences in vacancy rates" means more and more retailers are expected to depart outlying locations for healthier 'core' centres. The report highlights weak consumer confidence and increased online spending as some of the major reasons why vacancy rates are predicted to grow further in 2012.
Focus DIY was among the well-known high street shops listed in the report as a 2011 casualty, with experts blaming the poor housing market for 170 of the brand's stores filing for administration last May. Meanwhile, electrical firm Best Buy's previous hopes for 200 stores by 2013 are now in tatters as it faces the closure of its existing 11 branches.
The report reiterated there was 'no safe retail sector', although it predicted a 'modicum of deflation in non-food prices' after last year's inflation being driven by the VAT increase. It added: "An increase in sales tax has proved to be a useful scapegoat for retailers seeking to improve margins and, once the effect is past, it may highlight the inherent conflict between discount pricing and profitability."
The empty husks of Walmsley, Habitat and Lombok furniture stores can still be found across the country, following the closure of around 75 last year. Also appointing administrators was Homeform, the parent company of Moben, Dolphin, Sharps and Kitchen Direct. According to the Local Data Company, the most likely outcome is that these brands will be sold as freestanding concerns.
With retail spending on the high street expected to drop from its current rate of 42.5% to 39.8% by 2014, the report says it is "no wonder" the vacancy rates are rising. Out of town retailing took 3.4% more sales from the high street in 2011 than in 2000, with the report highlighting online trading as the "fastest growing competitor" to the high street. 89% of internet users in the UK claim they visit retail websites regularly, more than any other country according to the report.
Home and fashion retailer Next was highlighted as an example of the important impact of online sales to overall financial results. According to the report, the retailer had an increase of 3.1% in group sales between August 1 and December 24, 2011, but store sales fell by 2.7% over this period. This meant Next's overall increase in sales was largely down to online buyers.
Local Data Company director Matthew Hopkinson said: "The stable top line rate of 2011 hides the significant breadth in town centre vacancy rates up and down the country and the structural issues that are at stake. The reality is that the odds are stacked against a positive take up of shops and as such the new reality of 48,000 empty shops is there to stay unless an alternative use or purpose can be found.
"Technology is driving consumer behaviour to a world of engagement, entertainment and the ability to shop where, how and when we like. Town centres need to adapt to this changing environment if they are to survive and thrive."
British Property Federation chief executive Liz Pearce said: "[The] figures show that while some high streets are thriving, others remain locked in a spiral of decline. To turn these areas around will be difficult and will need landlords, retailers and local authorities to work closely together to adapt to changes in the way we shop.
"There are a number of proposals on the table for tackling declining town centres - many from the Portas Review - and we believe it is vital to stop talking and get on with implementing them as quickly as possible. Bringing empty shops back into use by allowing conversion to residential is one that could be implemented quickly and easily."
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