Consumer confidence is returning at last to the high street despite online competition – but local councils need ‘cohesive plans’ to attract shoppers, Barclays’ retail expert said in Birmingham.
Richard Lowe, Managing Director, Corporate Banking, at the Big Four bank, told the Birmingham Post the UK had now been through the worst on the high street – with retailers poised for post-recessionary growth.
But he warned that local authorities had to recognise the high street needed ‘a mix of everything’ – and called for innovative measures over parking charges to pull shoppers into town centres.
“I think if you look at 2013, it has been an encouraging year for the retail sector. We have started to see the return of some level of consumer confidence. If you compare it to previous years, it has not been a particularly poor year in terms of business failures; even in good years, there are some business failures.
“People talk about the death of the high street because everybody is going online – there is a growing symbiotic relationship between the high street and online.
“But there is still a lot of interest in the high street, although it does need to change and adapt. Local high streets need to satisfy local demand and local consumers.”
Mr Lowe said local councils had a vital role to play in the future of the high street. “You need a cohesive town plan on what you are going to do to encourage new shops. Is there a little bit of bravery required here? Yes, there is.
“People do not like paying for local parking. They will go to out of town centres. If they have got to pay, they might as well go to somewhere like that and drive a little bit further.
“They (councils) could say ‘I am not going to charge for the first hour.’ You have to start looking at all of it, not just ‘I do not want my parking income to go down.’
“It is not just about the first hour, it is not about free parking for everybody all day, it is about strategic thinking. I think that there should be a point of difference where you can buy something that you cannot buy in a supermarket.
“Supermarkets are dominant but the position is that consumer confidence has increased over the year. There is growth in the marketplace but what we want is sustainable growth.
“I think we have had the vast majority of business failures, there will be some every year because there always are, but I do not think that there will be many more big failures. I think we have been through the worst in terms of problems on the high street.”
Mr Lowe said indepdendent traders had been hard hit by the downturn – but consumers did not want identikit town centres.
“People are shopping more frequently than they used to – it is about putting balance back into the high street. If you can be something different, I think there is a space for people on the high street – people recognise that if you do not use it, you lose it.
“It’s a point of difference that they get something else. If you go to the supermarket, you buy the same produce and it is probably from the same manufacturer.
“Big cities are big cities and they are always going to attract big brands. But with towns, it is about finding what is different, about what is part of your market.”
He said shopping trends were changing. “If you look at the likes of Aldi and Lidl, they have had significant growth. The middle classes are now shopping at Aldi and Lidl but they are also shopping at Poundland – they could easily be shopping at both Poundland and Waitrose.
“People used to do what I would call the ‘one-stop shop.’ They used to go to the supermarket and buy everything they needed. Now they are shopping around more to make up their weekly basket.
“Local authorities need to recognise that the High Street is a community – it needs a mix of everything.”