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Retail Reflections: At last some good news; reinvention of the public square

Alan Monahan writes: It’s been a difficult couple of weeks. I didn’t make The Sunday Times Rich List and then, after vowing not to watch the royal wedding on television, I was caught by my wife doing just that in the study where I was supposed to be working.

This was a bitter blow for someone who had long wondered if he was a Closet Republican. My excuse was feeble: ‘Oh, I only switched it on so that I didn’t get totally absorbed in what I was typing and miss the Cup Final.’ As you can imagine, that didn’t wash.

And yes, I do of course concede that if you must have a monarchy our Queen has served the country brilliantly. What’s more, royal weddings are good for retail and national celebrations have traditionally had a positive impact on both footfall and spending behaviour.

In fact, retail intelligence firm Springboard forecasts that the Harry-Meghan wedding is set to boost retail sales across the UK by an estimated £195.5 million – a 0.2% uplift – by the end of August, with footfall predicted to increase by an average of 0.3% over the next four months.

Apparently, in May alone, UK retailers are set to receive a much-needed fillip with around £93.1 million to be spent across Britain’s high streets, shopping centres and retail parks. ‘Royal Wedding Fever’ will see a further £102.4 million spent over the summer months of June, July and August.

Well, we could certainly do with some good news. But heaven knows how Springboard can be so confident about this when the vagaries of the British weather have to be taken into consideration – something that has confounded their bank holiday footfall predictions on more than one occasion.

But hey, I’ll look on the bright side and bear in mind that footfall increased by 5% in the week of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s wedding, and then by an average of 0.9% over the three months that followed as shoppers spirits were said to be lifted and their purse strings loosened.

While Springboard anticipates a rise in sales because of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s marriage, it forecast that the increase will be around a quarter of that predicted for the previous royal wedding – in part a result of the poorer trading conditions we are currently experiencing.

But I’ll stick my neck out and say that it may, for once, be erring on the low side. After all, we’ve just had a weekend of wall-to-wall sunshine and not only the royal wedding, but the FA Cup and Scottish Cup finals too, which will boost consumer spending.

Good weather gets people out of their homes and into shops, restaurants and pubs. I’ve no doubt that England still being in the World Cup will also help to swell the economy. And Visit Britain believes that the UK will see a 4% uplift in overseas tourists, who are expected to spend £29.9bn this year, 7% more than in 2017.

For all that, there has been the usual plethora of headlines in the national press about the state of UK retail, typified by “High street must change – or shut up shop” and “Consumers’ cold shoulder is forcing retailers out”.

A leading article in The Times pointed out that Britons spend more online than any other nation in the world and this, along with sometimes punitive business rates and falling consumer confidence, accounts for the net closure between 2013 and 2017 of 314 clothes shops and 86 shoe shops. Last year 358 travel agents and 239 estate agents shut their doors. BHS, Jaeger and Austin Reed all disappeared in 2017 as high street names.

Already this year, Toys R Us and Maplin have followed; Mothercare and House of Fraser are in trouble and Marks & Spencer is cutting back its real-world presence.

‘None of this means that consumers are necessarily happy to spend their whole time indoors with a touchscreen,’ comments The Times, which quotes Save The High Street’s Lyndsay King as saying that ‘people need the real-life experience more than ever’.

The paper concludes that acting on that assumption, commercial property owners and developers willing to plan strategically and prioritise the quality of their tenants over short-term gain have thrived. It points to the backers of Altrincham Market. In 2010 their chosen neighbourhood had a vacancy rate of 30 per cent. Now it is below 10 per cent, with footfall rising. Enfield in north London is seeking investors as partners in a similar makeover but on a larger scale.

‘High streets as Britain knew them in the 1960s had existed only for a century. Before that, street commerce was conducted mainly by markets stalls. The public square is being reinvented again. With energy and imagination it can be improved,’ says The Times.

It is to be hoped that there will be room in any such plan for small, independent retailers who have not only served the public well but also made a massive contribution to our economy down the years.

I am reminded of a piece by Lucy Mangan in the i newspaper. She wrote about going shopping in bricks and mortar stores after giving up Amazon, describing it as her ‘indulgence’.

‘I started walking … Shops appeared before me. A fancy dress shop yielded litmus paper. A shop that defies categorisation but appeared to sell everything furnished my charger, and a new collar for my cat and I picked up some seeds for the garden too. A nice chat with the owner also pointed me in the direction of a hardware store for brackets.

‘It was, technically, inconvenient. It was also restorative, productive, humanising and fun. Amazon discounts may not have applied, but I felt like I got a lot more for my money. And (Amazon founder) Bezos got none at all.’

A Damascene conversion: were there more like her!