Sponsored by the Economic and Social Research Council
The future vitality and viability of the UK’s High Streets have attracted considerable attention over the last few years. However, much of this attention – not least recent policy-making in this area - has been based on rhetoric and anecdotal evidence rather than data-driven reality. During a short, 3-month, KEO project, Oxford University researchers and the Local Data Company (LDC) analysed the ways in which the retail mix of over 150,000 shops across 1,300 UK High Streets has changed over the past two years, as well as over the past thirty - using research previously conducted in Oxford.
Our findings identified the effects of online retailing, the growth in value outlets and the proliferation of consumer service businesses. For the UK’s High Streets to thrive in the future is not just about being big enough to withstand a mixture of economic austerity, online and out-of-town retailing. Whilst many big retail centres continue to be resilient, the most successful smaller town centres are proving to be diverse and versatile, perhaps developing specialist roles. The research team calculated a retail diversity, as well as a service diversity index, for every UK High Street. Our research showed that many of the country’s High Streets continue to evolve to play the changing roles required of them by residents, workers, visitors and their competitive context – although not always into roles that match the expectations of commentators or politicians, perhaps fed by misplaced nostalgia rather than by the realities that some High Streets face.
How are UK High Streets different from each other?
We developed a variety of new metrics as part of a tool kit for stakeholders, in addition to calculating centre profiles by business type and category. For example, a Retail Diversity Index measures the variety of comparison goods outlets present in a place, and thus the more interesting places to shop. A Service Diversity Index recognizes that many High Streets are more than just places for shopping. A leisure services component scored highly centres with particularly strong entertainment and hospitality roles.
How have the UK's High Streets changed?
Over the past two years, the story is as much about a change in the mix as it is of massive across the board declines. Several very specific structural changes underlie this.
(a) Digitisation. High Streets have already begun to respond to the most obvious effects of online retailing. In the most vulnerable categories, where the product itself is being digitized there has been a -13% fall in High Street outlet numbers – this equates to over 1,000 stores.
(b) Value. The last two years has seen a +12.4% increase in value-related retailing. There are now over 10,000 such shops, comprising 9% of the total.
(c) Pawnbrokers, pay-day lenders and betting shops have attracted special attention from politicians. There has been a +17% growth in these outlet numbers since 2011, not just in more traditional metropolitan High Streets but also in smaller market towns.
(d) Food is returning to many High Streets. Independent c-stores in High Streets have grown by +17%, whilst multiple convenience stores, driven by the interest of the major grocery brands, have grown by +8%.
(e) Health & Beauty. This category grew by +10.4%, or by more than 2,300 outlets over the last two years. Indeed, there are now more nail salons on British High Streets than Chinese restaurants.
Over the longer term (30 years) there is longstanding stability amongst the top ten centres, there are clear rises and falls lower in the list. The biggest rises include centres with new development as well as, of course, wholly new entrants. Falls include Croydon, Doncaster and Plymouth, as well as several centres that have exited the top 50 altogether, including Sheffield (63), Swansea (61), Coventry (58) and Middlesborough (56)
What of future prospects for High Streets?
Based on recent historic change, the number of comparison goods multiple outlets in our town centres by 2018 could undergo a further fall of some -13% (some 5,000 outlets) over and above the -5% fall since 2011. But such analysis is simplistic: the reality is much more complex, given the relative growth and decline of particular categories of business. OXIRM & LDC have agreed to work to develop a series of possible trajectories for town centres, based on a set of assumptions about the future.
- Reynolds, J., & S.M. Wood, (2013), Knowledge management, organisational learning and memory in UK retail network planning, The Service Industries Journal, 33:2, 150-170, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/02642069.2011.614340
- Reynolds, J., & S.M. Wood, (2012), Leveraging locational insights within retail store development? Assessing the use of location planners’ knowledge in retail marketing, Geoforum, 43(6), November, pp.1076-1087, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.geoforum.2012.06.014
- Reynolds, J., & S.M. Wood, (2012), Establishing Territorial Embeddedness within Retail Transnational Corporation (TNC) Expansion: The Contribution of Store Development Departments, Regional Studies, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00343404.2012.701731
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- Reynolds, J., & S.M. Wood, (2011), ‘The Intra-Firm Context of Retail Expansion Planning’, Environment & Planning (A), 43: 2468-2491.
- Reynolds, J. & S.M. Wood, (2010), ‘Location Decision-Making in Retail Firms: Evolution and Challenge’, International Journal of Retail & Distribution Management, 38 (11/12), pp. 828-845.