Cheerleaders for small shops will have found little to cheer about in the latest Grocery Retail Structure report (18 May). Independently-owned stores remain in long-term decline, while multiples of most shapes and sizes continue to grow. The sharp fall in health shops, although attributable to the demise of one operator, may indicate that this category has now reached maturity.
Farm shops, by contrast, are successfully defending their unique offering for relatively affluent consumers - though one day they too will reach maturity.
None of this bodes well for those high streets where small shops are still predominant. The burden of business rates, rents and employment costs is doubtless contributing to small shopkeepers’ woes but one suspects a freeze on further rate increases, however welcome, would do little to halt, still less reverse these structural trends.
The continuing growth in hypermarkets and supermarkets underlines yet again the overriding advantages of scale and accessibility. A recent visit to a smart out-of-town shopping centre near Boulogne, anchored by an Auchan hypermarket, illustrated the power of this format.
“Many high streets are in terminal decline. Turn them back to housing”
While the French have in the past done far more to protect their small shops and traditional town centres than we have, this Auchan store was obviously popular with the locals. With at least 100,000 sq ft of floor space, there was plenty of scope to display the product range to full advantage, which the management had done with conviction. No inhibitions about offering a “cathedral of choice” here and no untoward emphasis on organic food either.
The produce, bakery and fish ranges were particularly eye-catching, while the promotions were numerous and the checkout service was efficient and polite.
A trend common to both countries, however, is the spread of smallish c-stores in town centres owned by the big supermarket chains, converting premises once occupied by independents. Scale economies at work again.
The policy inference is clear. Many high streets in the UK are in terminal decline. Turn them back to housing. A Portas-style revival of small independents is a pipe dream.
Kevin Hawkins is an independent retail consultant