High street retailers are disappearing – and so will marketers if they don’t buck up some of their ideas

I got a bit of a shock wandering around Barnes High Street last weekend. Where are all the shops? For those who don’t know London, Barnes is a well-heeled, leafy, village-like community, just south of the Thames. I saw at least 6 closed shops in the space of 100 yards – startling in an area that has a reputation for being upmarket and affluent. So much for London being in a prosperity zone that separates it from the rest of the country.

Recently, a number of well known retail names have hit the buffers and I had assumed it was a consequence of less well-off areas feeling the pinch. But Barnes doesn’t fit this ill-informed assumption. According to an article in The Times (6th June), the footfall in high streets has dropped nationally by nearly 13% in the year to April. Out-of-town and shopping centres are flat over the same period, so the high street looks like the big loser.

Recent conversations with London estate agents reveal that property values continue to buck the national trend. According to a Knight Frank survey in the Financial Times (June 7th) Westminster (in London) has seen an 8.9% increase in value during the same period. So a property worth £1m a year ago would now sell for about £1.1m, easily beating cash in the bank.

So, on the one hand we have seen a 13% decline in high street footfall, on the other a 9% growth in property values in Westminster. If the money is there to stimulate the property market why isn’t it trickling through to the high street? Or is the bull market in London property confined to prime areas only – and are the minted elite only shopping in equally elite retail emporia?

One possible answer is the impact of internet shopping. According to The Times article, internet shopping now accounts for 8.5% of all retail sales. Maybe the growth of online is slowly killing off certain kinds of retail businesses.

The internet has been with us since around the Nineties. Its growth and influence has clearly been massive but where are we on the curve of development? If it’s true – as it almost certainly is – that traditional local high streets have suffered as consumers migrate to online buying, the question is how much further this trend will be extrapolated. In 10 years time, our high streets could be devastated.

Lee Manning, president of R3, the insolvency practitioners’ trade body recently said, ‘The internet is cannibalising “bricks and mortar” retail, so retailers need to adapt their business to stay ahead of the curve.’ Exactly, but not just retailers: and the marketing community also needs to look ahead as routes to market change and historic channels die off.

One solution to all this empty property in the high street would be collection centres that replace door-to-door delivery. Imagine, for example, your friendly DHL Local. You get an alert on your mobile to let you know your Amazon DVDs have arrived and toddle down to the high street to pick them up. Efficient, safe and you get some exercise into the bargain. These distribution depots could also be places to send parcels. It would be a far better experience than standing in line at the post office. (The problem with post offices is all of the non-post stuff they have to do. It’s not a great experience on any level.)

Postscript: I see many conferences dedicated to social media but none about the changing landscape of retail channels. It’s possible I have missed them, but I doubt it. The matter is of some urgency, because the progressive devastation of our hight streets has ramifications for marketers operating in all sorts of sectors.

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About Paul Simons

Paul joined Cadbury-Schweppes in brand management and then moved to United Biscuits. He switched to advertising in his late 20s, at Cogent Elliott and then Gold Greenlees Trott. He founded Simons Palmer Denton Clemmow & Johnson in the late 80s, one of the leading creative agencies of the 90s. Simons Palmer then merged with TBWA to create a top ten agency. Paul then joined O&M as chairman & CEO of the UK group. After three years he left to create a new AIM-quoted advertising group Cagney Plc. He is now a consultant to a number of client companies. Paul also shares his thoughts on his blog. Visit Paul Simons Blog.