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Trading on empty – retail vacancy figures

It’s the fifth year of the downturn and still we are casting around for good news.  It was in short supply last week when the Local Data Company (LDC) launched their shop vacancy report at the Seventh LDC Retail Summit 2013, held at Hogan Lovells’ offices.  The event was marked by a panel debate including myself, Emma Simpson of the BBC, Roberta Blackman-Woods MP, Ben Dowd of Telefonica UK and Jackie Sadek of UK Regeneration. Tales of “carnage on the high street” have since hit press and radio alike.

According to the LDC report, over 14% of shops were empty last year, down just a fraction from 2011.  The headline hides even greater woes for some areas as London’s improving occupancy rates hide a worsening picture in the regions, particularly the North West where vacancy tops 20% (with Morecambe a whopping 34%).

And 2013 is already shaping up to be a bad year, with Jessops, HMV, Blockbusters and Republic all calling in administrators in the first two months.  Some say that the situation may be even bleaker than the LDC report suggests, with over 1000 more shops at risk of closing, but perhaps it is more nuanced than that.

First, 2012 was a shocker, seeing the collapse of Comet, JJB, Clinton Cards, Game and many others.  We should not necessarily expect a repeat performance.  Second, January is traditionally a bad month for retailers.  Many have just about limped through Christmas trading and can’t easily rely on January sales to get people through the doors when they have already been discounting.  The snow didn’t help, perhaps accounting for some of the 4.6% drop in footfall reported by the British Retail Consortium (snowfall up, footfall down).  Third, January 2012 was arguably far worse, with Blacks, La Senza, Past Times, Peacocks and Bon Marche all appointing administrators in one month alone, putting more than 1500 shops at risk.

If the failures of 2012 were all about the continuing squeeze on consumer spending, those seen so far in 2013 appear to have their root causes in the underlying business.  HMV’s core market – CDs and DVDs – is in decline with consumers switching to digital alternatives, or buying them online.  Incredibly, it opened an online store in 1999, but still remained too focused on physical product.  The proposed move into technology was always going to be a challenge and, in the end, Christmas was make or break.

There is a similar tale with Jessops.  The market for digital cameras is diminishing and those not happy to use their smartphones turn to niche or online retailers.  New store layouts were tried but without transforming the business model.  And Blockbusters? Perhaps the only surprising thing about its demise was that it had survived for so long against online competition.  Even Republic’s failure has been connected with a weak online presence.  The pattern suggests that those who fail to invest in multi-channel retailing risk being left behind.

So what happens now?  Convenience stores, discounters, independents and coffee shops will all benefit from the glut of empty properties hitting the market.  Dixons, Waterstones, Game and the like may get a bounce from being the “last man standing” in their respective markets.  The coming year is likely to be mixed – no rapid recovery but hopefully not as bad as 2012. 

It seems odd that people used to complain about clone streets.  Perhaps what we are witnessing now is a process of “declonification”, with multiples retreating to the retail parks and shopping centres.  The high street cannot compete with those locations any more than it can with the internet.  The challenge for the industry is to help turn this process of disintegration into one of reinvention.