The recent collapse of BHS and Austin Reed will add to the 46,000 stores now empty on our high streets.
A complex range of factors are impacting UK retailers, from costly business rates to online competition, but it’s not all doom and gloom. Might there be scope to use vacant lots to support independent and fast growing businesses? I believe some changes in thinking could make a significant difference to our high streets.
1. Relax leasing and rates requirements: making it easier for independent retailers to use vacant premises on a temporary basis, until permanent tenants are found. This will maintain footfall on our high streets to keep them busy and give growing business a chance to reach new customers.
2. Tell people about available outlets: creating an accessible way to publicise unoccupied spaces at a local level will help to quickly gain new tenants and make the best use of available retail floor space.
3. Band together: allowing retailers to collectively lease a disused outlet lets them to reduce costs, minimise risk and share customers. Encouraging mixed use premises also creates more interesting retail experiences and encourages shoppers to stay longer on the high street. For example, one of Vend’s customers, Thy Barber, has combined a barbers and a coffee bar, creating a unique location for people to meet in East London.
4. Support social enterprise: if shops are empty, they could be made available to social enterprises and charities. Lucky Brakes is a bicycle workshop set up temporarily in Greenwich, giving those recovering from an alcohol or drug dependency or with a criminal record, the chance to learn new skills. This kind of venture has a positive impact on the local community with the added benefit of keeping the high street busy.
5. Embrace technology: easy-to-use technology is lowering the cost and risk of setting up shop, making it more practical for a retailer to use a temporary location – such as a pop-up store. New business apps in the cloud now allow growing retailers to take sales and manage their business, all for a minimal cost and through a single app. Local councils should explore how technology, such as apps that run on iPad and mobile devices, can be used by independent retailers to get up and running in a new high street location quickly and with far less cost than with traditional systems.
Some of the biggest, best-known brands on our high streets are suffering from a changing retail landscape, but a combination of fresh thinking, more flexible regulations and the use of technology could open up opportunities for more of our independent, growing retailers. Within the big changes we’re seeing on our high streets also lie some amazing opportunities.
Vaughan Rowsell is the founder of Vend.