High streets in trouble as big names go bust

Major British retail chains are floundering as the recession claims business victims. Shop windows are being boarded up across the country. Is this the death of high street shopping?

This summer has brought little cheer to Britain's high street shops, as major chains have been forced to close stores or even go out of business entirely. The latest casualty is Thorntons, an upmarket confectionary chain which has just announced it will close half its 364 shops amid falling sales. Clothing retailer Jane Norman is going bust, along with department store TJ Hughes. In total, some 6,000 jobs may be lost – and that's just the bad news from a single week.

Habitat, HMV and Oddbins are among the other household names to have announced job cuts and store closures. The shops they once occupied will either be given to new tenants or will simply be abandoned.

The bigger picture looks even more bleak. 14.5% of shops on the average high street are now empty shells. The number has tripled since 2007, and looks set to keep growing.

The problem for retailers is that worried consumers are spending less and less money. The unsettled economic climate – and the threat of job losses and pay cuts for millions of public sector workers – means that British shoppers are now increasingly reluctant to spend their money.

Even when purchases are made, it's rarely high street shops that see the benefit. Out of town shopping centres and vast supermarkets which sell almost everything for extremely low prices are sucking customers away from smaller, more local shops.

Meanwhile, a growing number of shoppers buy online. Internet sales have grown hugely over the last few years and are expected to increase by a further 61% by 2014. Retailers like Amazon can offer a huge selection and major savings because they don't have to pay for overheads like physical shop locations or shop assistants and managers.

Ghost towns

The changing high street is worrying the UK government. Retail consultant Mary Portas – famous from the TV programme Mary Queen of Shops – has been appointed to advise on how to turn things around. She fears that shopping streets across Britain will soon be deserted. The buzz of commercial activity that is the heartbeat of many towns would be silenced.

But not everyone is convinced that this change is for the worse. After all, megastores and online retailers are prospering because they give people what they want: wide selection at lower prices than high street outlets. And as retail activity moves to these hyper-efficient businesses, high streets could be reinvented. What if, for the first time in centuries, Britain's town centres could be about more than just shopping?

You Decide

  1. Should people support local shops even if they are more expensive? Or is it better just to shop at supermarkets.
  2. How important is shopping to society?

Activities

  1. What would your perfect high street be like? Draw up a map of an imaginary high street, placing shops, community facilities and housing.
  2. Do some further research on the Roman Forum, and how it evolved from commercial hub to political centre. Are there any lessons we can learn today?

Some People Say...

“Shopping is the world's most depressing activity.”

What do you think?

Q & A

How important are high streets to society?
Very. For small towns, the high street is often the centre of social life. Sadly, it's these small town high streets that are most often under threat. And commercial centres have a long history as hubs for social interaction.
Oh really?
In Ancient Rome, each town had a market called aforum. It was the centre of trade but was also the site of the most important political events and speeches. Roman markets give their name to today's online discussion forums.
And could high streets be reinvented?
Mary Portas thinks they will have to be. She hopes future high streets will be more varied, with a range of independent shops, major chains and community centres, which could draw people back into the middle of towns. They will have to be about more than just buying and selling.

Word Watch

Confectionary
Sweets and chocolates.
Retailer
A company which sells goods to the public. About 10% of the UK's population works in retail.
Public sector workers
People who are employed by the government. Government spending cuts mean that many public sector workers face losing their jobs.
Overheads
Overheads are the costs a company must pay as well as buying materials for their products. So, for example, restaurants spend little on raw ingredients for their dishes but they have to spend a lot on overheads like renting a property or paying wages.