Blog: Dean BestReality may stymie Portas's good intentions

Dean Best | 13 December 2011

Much of the UK retail sector has today (13 December) been digesting a set of recommendations to revitalise the country's High Streets by retail adviser and TV presenter Mary Portas.

Portas was appointed by the Government last year to examine the future of the country's High Streets, which, in general, have lost to superstores, out-of-town retail parks and the rise of online shopping.

Her sometimes abrupt and opinionated persona has attracted some criticism but, given her review (which you can find here) is the first wide-ranging report into the state of the UK's high streets, as well as her experience in the sector, her recommendations are worth reading.

Some make complete sense. Portas calls on the government to review business rates to give support to small and independent retailers. She also says there should more free parking to encourage shoppers to use their local High Street. She even calls for a "Town Team" to manage High Streets and for a "National Market Day" when shopkeepers can set up stalls. There are those who may scoff at some of the ideas but Portas is passionate about, as she says, putting "the heart back into the centre of our High Streets".

However, for all the good intentions, one cannot help but wonder if the economic reality of a stagnant Britain and the technological reality of an increasingly Internet-savvy population will mean that High Streets find it hard to regain the lustre they once had.

On a day when official UK figures showed that inflation stood at 4.8% last month, it is clear that, even if the rate at which prices are rising has slowed, consumer spending power remains under severe pressure. The value that superstores can offer will pull consumers away from independents, even if smaller retailers can look to provide better service.

Fuel costs have led to the UK convenience channel being one of the fastest-growing areas of the retail industry but the likes of Tesco and Sainsbury's have continued to build their c-store empires - which would hardly be music to the ears of someone like Portas, who wants High Streets to be "destinations" again.

The economy could also hold back some of Portas' most sensible recommendations. Can cash-starved councils afford to cut parking charges?

And, of course, there is the growth of online shopping to contend with. The channel has a lot of work to do and improvements to make to meet the demands of shoppers, when one combines the convenience of online with some of the irritations of High Street shopping, it is clear that the traditional local High Street faces an uphill struggle.


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