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Is time up for our high streets?

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The future of retail is online or in out-of-town malls – not on our high streets, according to a veteran retailer.

Speaking at Oxford University’s Harris Manchester College this week, Phil Wrigley, chairman of Majestic Wine, likened high street retailing to the shipbuilding industry: a “failing sector” that should not be propped up, according to a report in the Financial Times this week.

That meant there was little point in putting into place the recommendations of the Portas report, said Wrigley, who has also previously been a director at New Look, Debenhams and BhS, which include recruiting town teams and introducing national market days in order to boost the sector. “When employment-intensive industries such as shipbuilding or car manufacturing were bearing the pain of restructuring, the government was happy to step forward with support and money,” he is reported as saying. “Maybe the time has come to treat retail in the same way.”

Rather he forecast a future for the high street as home to residential communities, with smaller scale retail outlets acting as “local depositories” where online purchases could be collected. Instead, retailers would open fewer and bigger stores in “leisure villages” that would be closer to holiday destinations and looked to create experiences for customers.

Our view: Much of what Phil Wrigley is reported to have said chimes with the way multichannel retailing is already developing. Stores as an experience have been widely predicted, while the emergence of the store as collection point has started to build over the last year with the growth of the Collect+ network for online delivery and collection from convenience stores and the appearance of small format House of shops, that exist only for customers to place or collect orders.

Certainly there’s a need for high street only stores to adapt – but we feel it’s too early to write off the high street. Rather there’s a place for internet-only businesses to open on the high street, much as did recently. The rising price of petrol and lower relative wages would seem to point to fewer people wanting to drive to stores, and much as austerity is being embraced, we feel people will always need to buy goods that are available right now and close to their homes – not only for order over the internet.

It seems certain the high street won’t be the same – but maybe Wrigley’s predictions can be seen in a more positive light. Rather than dying on its feet, perhaps this is a time of change for the high street that will ultimately end with its transformation into a home for smaller stores that serve the local needs of the local population. In many ways those needs are what they always were, centring on food, leisure, and essentials. But today they would also logically include the need to collect internet purchases.

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