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Time for action to boost town centres in the age of omnichannel retail: report

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It’s time to take action to stop the rot of empty shops, even more so when the crucial role that stores will play in an omnichannel retail future is fast becoming clear.

That’s one conclusion of the Local Data Company’s latest report into the national shop vacancy rate, Shopped Out. It found that one in seven, or 14% of shops in the UK’s top 650 town centres now lie empty. That’s marginally down, by 0.1%, on the same time last year. It’s also equivalent, said Matthew Hopkinson, Local Data Company director, to 23 Sheffield city centres lying completely empty of shops or leisure businesses.

“Town centres are a key component of maintaining a social and vibrant ‘human’ community, so they cannot be left to rot with over 22,000 empty shops for the last five years,” said Hopkinson.

He pointed to the central role that is now emerging for shops in an omnichannel retail environment. “Click and collect shows how complimentary bricks and clicks are, and how important it is for retailers to maintain a physical relationship with their customers, which can only be achieved through shops,” he said.

But even through vacancy rates remain high, the stock of shops has grown by 403 in the last six months across the UK.

“We have too many shops in this country and many are not fit for a role within the new omnichannel/digital environment,” said Hopkinson. He predicts that many stores will either be demolished or reused as leisure destinations.

Indeed, the report already shows evidence of the high street changing in this direction, with more leisure businesses, such as restaurants, bars and cafes. “Subject to planning,” said Hopkinson, “[these uses] will be able to absorb some but not all of this excess stock, which is forecast to increase. Leisure uses have grown at three times the rate of shops in the first half of this year. This is an increase of over 500 units in the first half of 2013. (+0.9%).”

The empty shops rate is felt particularly strongly across a north south divide, said Hopkinson.

He added: “As the LDC data shows, this problem is felt more acutely north of the Watford Gap where economic challenges are greater than in the South, along with the greatest disparity in business occupation costs see between rental decline and business rate increases.

The North West is particularly badly affected, with one in five shops now empty. And of the top 25 centres with the highest rate of shop vacancies, 21 are in the North, Midlands or Wales. London, where only 9.5% of shops are empty, is the least affected. Small towns, with 9.2% of shops standing empty, were the least affected, while shopping centres had been hard hit – 16.1% of shopping centre shops are now vacant, the report found.

The report comes a week after the Grimsey Review, in which the Local Data Company took part, predicted the future of the high street lay in wired towns and networked high streets.

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