Retail tsar Bill Grimsey is to again lead a troubleshooting task force looking to revive Britain’s high streets after a string of collapses prompted fresh fears that town centres will become semi-derelict.
Grimsey, a retail veteran who previously headed up Wickes and Iceland, led an influential independent review back in 2013 but is to revisit the subject amid the failure of Maplin and Toys R Us.
“Five years on the high street continues to face big challenges and now is a good time to take stock of what has changed,” said Grimsey. “It is time to get this subject back on everyone’s agenda otherwise we will continue to sleepwalk into the remainder of the 21st century.”
The failure of Maplin and Toys R Us last month dealt a severe blow to the high street as together the chains ran more than 300 stores and employed 5,500 staff. The bad news continued last week when New Look announced plans to close up to 60 stores, putting almost 1000 jobs at risk. Elsewhere restaurant chains including Jamie Oliver, Prezzo and Byron have all announced closures amid a severe downturn in trading as inflation erodes Britons’ spending power.
Over the last decade there has been a huge change in shopping habits in the UK with nearly £60bn spent via phones and tablets in 2017 – a figure that equates to more than £1 in every £6 spent on the high street. The shift is boosting sales at the likes of Amazon, Asos and Boohoo, but forcing radical change on British towns and cities as huge swaths of physical retail space becomes redundant.
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“Online has been a catalyst that has reinforced the fact that we have too many shops in the UK,” said Matthew Hopkinson, founder of retail consultancy DataIntel who is one of six experts collaborating with Grimsey on a second instalment of the review. “Around 10% of the UK retail stock is surplus to requirements, which equates to about 50,000 stores.”
Although self-appointed, Grimsey’s original review was closely followed in Westminster. A copy was despatched to then prime minister David Cameron who two years earlier had asked TV retail guru Mary Portas to carry out a similar exercise after being faced with record numbers of empty shops.
Among the recommendations of the Grimsey review was a business rates freeze but the government pressed on with last year’s revaluation, a move that has handed retailers facing huge bill increases in parts of the country where property prices have surged.
Grimsey said the updated review, to be published in the summer, would look at successful examples of retail regeneration projects and what more could be done to help local authorities cope with the structural changes in the retail sector.