First Person: A landlord’s perspective on retailing today

Boxpod founder and MD Nick Marlow shares his journey from retailer to commercial property landlord, offering an action plan to reignite our high streets.

His views literally are from both sides of the fence.

For the past 50 years retailing has been a major part of our economy, bringing together the manufacturing industry and service sectors.

Shopping was very much a past time and a lifestyle adored by many wanting to spend hours going from shop to shop particularly on a Saturday looking for bargains and treats.

It was a leisurely pursuit that so many focused on at the end of the busy working week. Consumers viewed the opportunity to battle with the busy crowds and weight of shopping bags as a pleasure!

Today in a faster moving world where nothing stands still for long and time is precious, it is hardly a surprise that this past time has been in decline and fallen out of fashion.

So what really happened to the high street? There has been so much discussion and debate by many of the industry’s top retailers giving advice on how to turn the tide and turn losses back into profits. Unfortunately, not even our retailing gurus have been able to stop the decline of our busy thriving shopping streets. It doesn’t fit in with our lifestyles today.

We over saturated our towns with shops and our high streets became uniform so one town looked very like another. The councils should have seen this downturn many years ago and put restrictions on planning. Now, in some towns, shops stand empty, shopping precincts, paid for by our pensions and once buzzing with footfall, are dormant and not used.

The UK was once admired as a nation of shopkeepers. What now?

Whilst many seem to accept the decline has been brought about by the Internet, there seems little evidence to suggest that real support and direction has been given to support retailers and insure our once bustling high streets and thriving shopping centres return to some kind of hope for their future. Councils, businesses and landlords all need to get together to help find a future usage of these empty sites and shops.

I have spent half of my working life as a retailer. I knew a fair amount about shops and all that they offered and yet, through circumstance, I found myself looking to new pastures and opportunities whilst in my prime as a retailer back in the late 90s. Even as long ago as that it was apparent that the share of spend going to high street retailers was already being lost to the online retailer and the sound of busy tills ringing was being eroded and lost to the sound of silence.

In my retailing days I was only too well aware of all the delicate balancing required to accommodate all the outgoings of a working retail outlet such as rent, staff and utilities costs, versus the turnover generated from a good stock control to keep a positive balance sheet. 

Coupled with the continued government legislation and bureaucracy that’s been put on retailers it is no real surprise that in today’s market it can be seen as almost impossible to see retailing turning the corner on the high street.

However with all this doom and gloom about retailing, just as one might expect the worst and the seal of fate for shops and shoppers… Watch this space!

The saying goes “What goes around comes around” and I believe that retailing has every opportunity of seeing a strong return given the right backing and support. But we need to find some other uses for a quarter of the empty properties whether it’s converting them to homes so people are living among the shops that supply them their goods as well as the Internet.

What is really needed to kick start a resurgence of vitality to this sector is support and understanding from the powers above. Government, councils and landlords listen up. Let’s stop new build and conversion to retail – we have enough.

I believe, with the right backing, there could be a real opportunity to turn the tide.

Retailing can recover by ensuring that both Internet and bricks and mortar retailing work hand in hand. Whilst this has been carried out by the larger multiples the private single retailers along with landlords and government legislators have not been as quick to understand this importance and consequently caused much of the death of the independent retailers.

One of the biggest causes of harm to the longevity of retailing is the burden of unfair business rates, a subject I have spent many years lobbying against. The Government must address and remove this tax from independent retailers and look to ensure that this loss of revenue is shared out by the larger organisations and internet companies paying a fair share. 

Government must tackle this sooner rather than later.

Without business rates I am sure we could encourage successful retailing back to our high streets.

We also need to encourage independent retailers to have a web presence. The importance of selling online is vital in my view. There should be a support process to help this – perhaps apprenticeship courses and investment in training and support.

Shops need to promote website addresses boldly on windows and shop fronts. These should be displayed as prominently as the products/services themselves.

Many of our secondary retailing sites need a more flexible approach to opening hours and be encouraged to allocate more  shop floor space over to storage and packing areas.

With this approach staffing levels and costs will be far more achievable to maintain.

Parking and pick up points need to be considered to help the independents attract business back. With no parking restrictions or parking fees cut to a minimum, it would encourage people back to the city centres to shop.

It is also important that the larger multiples look to support smaller retailers in some way. They should be aware that they, in the fullness of time, will very much need the many smaller retailers to promote traditional shopping and return numbers to our high streets. Variety and individuality make a high street stand out against the crowd and attractive to consumers.

What you think? Let us know