High Street Futures: 2nd Expert Scoping Panel Workshop

Mary Portas put the British high street on the general public’s radar when she was commissioned by the government to produce the ‘The Portas Review: An independent review into the future of our high streets’ in 2011. As part of the government’s Growth Agenda, the purpose of the review was to explore new business models for high street management and look at ways in which town centres can encourage economic growth, job creation and improved quality of life for communities. Everyone knows that the high street is struggling. In 2012 Peacocks, La Senza, Comet, Game and JJB Sports were just a handful of the retailers who entered administration leading to store closures. Following on from the Portas Review, The University of Southampton’s Prof. Neil Wrigley and Prof. Michelle Lowe were awarded ESRC funding for the High Street Futures project which aimed to produce a forward-looking and agenda-setting academic study which evaluated alternative visions of the future of UK high street.

Oxford City Centre

On the 7th Feb. 2013 the High Street Futures team hosted an invitation only expert scoping panel to discuss the future of the high street. I was really pleased to have the opportunity to go along to the event which was attended by retail consultants, town centre planners, retailers and academics. Presentations were offered by the likes of Kantar Retail, Accessible Retail and the Association of Town Centre Management. It was a really thought-provoking day and reignited my excitement for retail, which, as I’ve become more and more interested in ethical consumption has waned. Why has it waned? Well, because retailers want to sell us stuff and in the main, we all have enough stuff! I would never now be comfortable working for certain retailers, yet there’s sense in the idea that if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. The high street is full of multinational retailers; they can offer us what we need and at a good price. I am conflicted by the desire to see a healthy economy and thriving high street, with the knowledge that we shouldn’t be encouraged to buy yet more mass-produced things, yet the high street of the future as envisaged by experts on the day doesn’t focus solely on retail and shopping, but on other ways to breathe life back into towns.

What went wrong?

We know the story of the recession – spending and borrowing was out of control. Hundreds of well known retailers grew to epic heights by cashing in on our materialist desires. Then the economy went belly-up, consumers slowed down their spending and suddenly retailers had to work harder to win our hearts over the competition. Furthermore, the competition was made tougher by the growth of supermarkets, out-of-town shopping centres and online shopping. Now, towns on average across the UK have non-occupancy rates of 15%. When Woolies went under, the country mourned (even though most people hadn’t stepped inside for years), but it was our fault in a way, as shoppers. Retailing is a democratic industry, we vote with our feet, and increasingly we are heading to Tesco and Amazon rather than long-standing high street stores. Generally the retailers we’ve lost have been bad retailers having failed to evolve, adapt or offer good customer service – a retail Darwinism if you will. Branded goods and retailers with a strong target market, as well as discount stores, have been some of the best performers over the last few years.

What needs to happen in the future?

The day wasn’t as bleak as you might think. The high street can survive as long as it adapts and all parties work together – retailers, landlords, councils and communities. Household spending may be flat but the economy is set to rise marginally this year. Town centres need to become places not just to shop, but to dwell, to live and to enjoy. I live in Southampton but only go into the city centre when I really need something, and even then often it is the bank, or to meet someone rather than to shop. But, I go to Winchester for no other reason than to wander and have an enjoyable time. What is it about Winchester that attracts me? It’s the aesthetics, the culture, the fact that you can sit in the cathedral grounds as a break from shopping, the up-market stores that make for great aspirational shopping, and the charity shops which sell cast-offs from the affluent residents. Winchester has the whole package. If I need serious shopping I might go to Gunwharf Quays or Westfields a couple of times a year because local high streets can’t compete with these mega malls and discount outlets.

Local towns need a USP and this comes from ambiance, events and independent shops. Indeed, indies should be encouraged to thrive and there was little, if any, representation from indies at the panel day, despite experts saying that towns need to offer something a bit different. Coffee shop culture is booming. You can’t walk far without seeing a Costa or Starbucks in most local towns and if this brings people in then all well and good. Town centres should be meeting places and encourage people to hang around rather than rush in and out. Parking and transport is obviously is an issue, and although free parking rarely seems viable or environmentally agreeable, I do think town centres should offer half an hour’s free parking if they want to encourage spending back from the convenience of the supermarkets.

We seem to be aware of the issues now at least, and lots of people are working on research and planning to keep town centres from crumbling anymore. The future of the high street lies with everyone – the retailers, planners, councils and of course, all of us consumers*.

For more information on the project: http://www.highstreetfutures.co.uk/

*Disclaimer – I would only ever encourage ethical consumption

Me with Gerard Dericks (LSE) and Paul Newton (Sainsburys)

Me with Gerard Dericks (LSE) and Paul Newton (Sainsburys)

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Mary’s Kinky Knickers British Manufacturing on Mary’s Bottom Line

The three part series Mary’s Bottom Line was interesting for many reasons. For one, who would ever expect plain-spoken Mary Portas to cry? She nearly made me cry – but it was actually forever unemployed father of one Andrew who managed to push me over the edge. The twenty year old had never worked, turned up to the interview in a borrowed suit that was far too big for him, genuinely seemed to want a better life for his son, and turned out to be a natural whiz on the sewing machine. The whole series was inspirational, depressing, frustrating and heartening all rolled into one.

If you didn’t watch it, the channel four series saw retail guru Mary Portas try to ‘bring back UK manufacturing’ (her words) by starting a British-made underwear brand – Kinky Knickers. At one point, clothes and textiles manufacturing was the fifth largest employer in the UK, with factories centred in the Midlands, Leeds and London suburbs. British employment in the industry slumped from nearly half a million in the 1980s to less than 140,000 by 2005 as retailers chose to source from overseas where production costs were significantly cheaper. Mary cherry-picked Middleton, Greater Manchester for her new knicker factory. Middleton was a centre for silk production in the 18th Century, before developing into a cotton spinning town in the mid 19th Century. These days the industry has all but gone, leaving high rates of unemployment.

So along comes Mary to save the day! She hires a team of young unemployed local people, most of which have never touched a sewing machine in their lives, and re-opens an old factory which is managed by the lovely Lynn. The knickers had to be 100% British and Mary had difficulty tracking down the stretch lace as British manufactured. “Was it ever in England?” she asks, referring to lace production. How much research did she do exactly?

In reading reports/articles/blog posts about the programme online it is clear that criticism of the show falls into two camps. Firstly I must say I think Mary has done something really great; she’s brought the issue to public attention and given some lovely people employment. I do hope Kinky Knickers continues to grow and sell and thrive. But it was Mary’s words that she wanted to ‘bring back UK manufacturing’ that ruffled a few feathers in the ethical fashion community. Yes British manufacturing has fallen significantly in the last thirty years, but it is still here in some areas albeit not on TV. LuvaHuva and whomadeyourpants? are just two brands specifically making lingerie in the UK although granted their raw materials don’t claim to be sourced solely from Britain. They have both been founded by inspirational women and grown organically after a huge amount of hard work. You can see why it’s frustrating for some that Mary Portas can swan in with Kinky Knickers and immediately get orders from the likes of Boots, Liberty, John Lewis and ASOS.

For the mainstream media however, it was the price of the knickers that got people talking. At £10 a pair, many people see this as too expensive, despite Mary’s claims that she has made it affordable to all. I don’t know how much Primark’s knickers cost and I wouldn’t wear them if you paid me, but I do know you can get three very pretty knickers from Topshop for a tenner. This doesn’t mean though, that a tenner for a pair of knickers is expensive. Even at M&S, these very simple every knickers cost £12.50 for one, and if you visit luxury lingerie brand La Perla you will pay £215 for these beautiful but teeny briefs.

If you break it down to basic product costing, the La Perla pants are clearly not worth £215, but similarly you don’t get something for nothing. Sadly when it comes to value fashion that seems to be exactly what people do expect. What did you think of the show?

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Charity Shop Drapers Review

A first for fashion trade magazine, Drapers, as they featured a charity shop in their weekly double page shop review. This is a HUGE development. Charity shops have for far too long had a stigma attached to them, especially amongst the youth. There will always be people who won’t step foot inside a charity shop perhaps because they think they are for old people, poor people, or they simply don’t want to wear second hand clothes. Personally I think charity shops are the ultimate in guilt free shopping – you are recycling and diverting textiles from landfill, giving money to a good cause, and spending out less money than you would for a brand new item.

Charity shops have benefited from the upsurge in demand for vintage pieces no doubt, and as the article in fact says, the best charity shops should feel more like vintage boutiques than dowdy charity shops. Mary Portas tried to change the fortune of charity shops around in her series Mary Queen of Charity Shops, and her influence can now be spotted in shops up and down the country. The shop review in Drapers is a Mary Portas/ Save the Children collaboration. Positioned in Primrose Hill, it should attract donations from the well heeled types living and working in the area. They also rely on donations from the big brands, next month hosting a Rigby and Peller event.
Charity shops cannot meet all needs, they don’t suit the time poor or those looking for a particular item, but if you do find a gem in your size it does leave you feeling a bit smug.

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