It is a curious thing, but the demise of HMV and chain stores of its genre may just be the saving of many high streets.
Over four decades, the character of far too many high streets has been eroded by identikit chain shops and cavernous shopping centres lined with yet more chain shops. But many of these chains are now disappearing from the high street. Many have collapsed. Comet, HMV, Jessops, Clinton Cards and Woolworths – the list of high street failures is growing long. In 2012, around 54 retailers went, closing almost 4,000 stores and ending the jobs of 8,000 employees. Other retailers have found high streets too cramped and awkward to access. They moved out of town and then moved online.
There are now more than 40,000 empty high street shops and the number of shoppers is declining. Charity and pop up shops sometimes fill the gaps, more often premises are left vacant. Its grim news. The recession has hastened the decline of our high streets but it is not the main force driving change.
The retail industry has been forecasting the end of the high street for many years. When, several years ago, I challenged a British Retail Consortium spokesman about supermarkets undermining our high streets, he thundered back: “Supermarkets ARE your high streets.” The property industry still continues to dream of ever bigger emporia in town centres stuffed to the rafters with national and international brands, but reality is that the development pipeline has all but ground to a halt.
The enthusiasm shown for the Mary Portas pilots and her town teams shows that councils and communities are not prepared to let their town centres die. The answer, everyone is realising, is that towns need variety. Towns that are struggling don’t have the right mix of chains, supermarkets, independents, entertainment and services. They don’t have people living in town centres. They are too often just like the town down the road and have nothing special to offer.
Town centres are at make or break. Some towns may fail, but most will reinvent themselves. They will have to strike a balance between providing enough interest for today’s brand aware generation and supporting independent retailers. Rents will need to fall to attract the independents, who will also want shorter leases. Business will rates need to be more reasonable. The total retail space in town centres will undoubtedly shrink. Councils and landowners will need to find novel uses for buildings – though not every town might feel at home with a zombie experience.
By all means share nostalgic memories about browsing in records stores and listening to music in booths. But recognise that in an age of iTunes and Spotify, generic music stores like HMV have no future. In their place, small specialist music stores will now have an opportunity to thrive, offering advice, information, coffee, friendship and of course music. They will stand side-by-side with the remaining chain stores, bringing the retail mix that town centres need to thrive.
Let us mourn the loss of jobs, but not the loss of the chain stores. We are going back to the golden age of the high street.
This article was first published on 24dash.