On British retailing and the Portas Report

After a tough few years for the British High Street, with well-known shops like Barrats, Woolworths and Peacocks announcing closures all around, retail expert Mary Portas was called in by the government to write a report. An article from Retail Human Resources provides a summary of her findings.

In short, the report suggests that government needs to get involved in order to save British high streets. Can intervention be justified?

Why is the high street in crisis?

The Retail Human Resources article states that the main cause of the high street crisis is failure to compete with internet retailers and out-of-town sites. However, the report sheds no light on why the high street is struggling to respond to these competitive pressures.  The fundamental problem is that people have found more efficient alternatives.

In a world where people are rapidly losing their jobs and trying to save every last penny, is it really so lamentable that we have become smarter shoppers? The simple fact is that the high street is much more expensive than the internet. Price comparison is much harder: to put it in economic jargon, the search costs associated with finding a desirable item are almost prohibitively high at a time where people have little time to spare.

Online retailing offers the benefit of at-home delivery, no queuing, email updates when a desired item appears online or at a discount and most importantly no opening and closing times. Similarly, out-of-town shopping centres have the ability to turn shopping into more of a day-long activity. So when people do actually have the time and money to dedicate to shopping, they want to make an experience out of it, and take a drive somewhere further away that offers lower prices and more convenient parking.

Shopping on the high street, by contrast, comes with the inevitable problems of transport, rigid opening and closing times, and the risk of harsh weather while shopping.

So let us ask ourselves this question again. Why is the high street in crisis? Because more efficient alternatives have been discovered. It is as simple as that.

Why does the high street matter?

According to the aforementioned article,

Ms Portas … said the high street had been “displaced” by out-of-town shopping centres, without anyone considering the impact of such a huge change.

The fact that people are not shopping on the British high street is not the end of the world. In fact, as the report highlights, people seem to have substituted shopping on the high street with online shopping and shopping in out-of-town centres.

Thus, even if we were to accept the Keynesian premise that enthusiastic consumption is essential for economic prosperity, the drop in consumption overall has not been drastic. What has changed is where people spend, and even the strictest Keynesian would say that this is economically relevant. So this ‘crisis’ is essentially the fact that people’s spending patterns have changed — something entirely natural in a dynamic economy.

From this perspective, what the report is arguing for is that the government needs to find ways to make people spend in places they have consciously chosen not to spend. People on an individual basis have chosen not to spend there. They act not act as a collective, but individually based on their own value scales.

Accordingly, it is disturbing when people bemoan the shift in preferences. It sounds like an incitement for the government to control where we spend our money, because only they are presumed to be responsible enough to evaluate “the impact of such a huge change”.  Portas is essentially reprimanding the government for failing to protect the inefficient high street from its more efficient competitors.

But isn’t there more to life than efficiency? Mary Portas argued that

Community had been sacrificed for convenience, and there was now no sense of “belonging” to a local high street, which could partly explain the summer’s riots

However, whatever value the high street may have in fostering and focusing community spirit, this clearly doesn’t matter to people as much as convenience or lower prices. If it did, they would demonstrate their preferences by choosing to shop on the high street. The ‘crisis’ of the high street is a demonstration of people’s preferences, and the government should not be trying to impose what they assume are people’s preferences from above.

Why should the government be “making things happen”?

It is the job of high street retailers to find a way to overcome the difficulties they face. It is in times of crisis when entrepreneurial creativity is really put to the test, and entrepreneurs’ truly creative nature is allowed to shine. If there is a role for the high street in today’s economy, and I genuinely believe that there is, what entrepreneurs need to do is stop trying to use the government to protect themselves from ‘unjust competition’ and try and find ways to adapt to new consumer preferences. Entrepreneurship means being able to adapt to changes and taking changes in people’s behaviour as new data from which to construct a new business strategy.

It is not the government that should be making things happen. All government involvement will do is delay the inevitable demise of certain high street stores that are unwilling to adapt. What is most destructive is that this delay will come at a huge cost of a misdirection of resources and will inevitably penalise the innovativeness of entrepreneurs who have set up successful online businesses and out-of-town centres.

The best thing retailers can do, and the thing that most smart retailers will do, will be to change their strategy and opt for people who can work with this change and make the company viable under current economic conditions. Companies choosing to avoid this change will inevitably be out-competed by companies that embrace it. Retailers expecting things not to change will be acting like a woman who has lost 50 pounds and expects to fit into her old clothes. Inevitably she will have to decide to go out and buy new clothes, but until then she will look awkward and out-of-place, and waste money buying clothes in her previous size.

The bottom line

The British high street has become inefficient; its demise however is not something that should be lamented because it is giving way to better things. Any government action will simply delay the inevitable and cause a massive misallocation of resources. This is a true test of entrepreneurial creativity. All companies need to do to survive is embrace change and try and find a new innovative strategy for dealing with it.

8 replies on “On British retailing and the Portas Report”
  1. says: mrg

    I agree that the government shouldn’t be picking winners. Intervention is not justified.

    However, we shouldn’t forget that the current environment is artificial, and that high street retailers are also victims of government. City councils charge extortionate business rates, and deter customers through poor traffic management and high parking charges. Meanwhile, Westminster and Brussels impose rules, regulations, and taxes that are more easily borne by the likes of Amazon and Tesco than Ye Olde High Street Shoppe.

    It’s also worth noting that it is possible that people will act individually in a way that is detrimental to all, including themselves. High street shopping may be a prisoner’s dilemma, where each individual has an incentive to ‘cheat’ by shopping at cheaper outlets, while hoping that others will preserve a town centre that they do actually value quite highly. Competition does not necessarily lead to globally optimal outcomes.

    In practice, though, the ‘cure’ of government intervention is almost always worse than the disease.

  2. says: Paul Danon

    As the article suggests, there’s a great opportunity for shopkeepers to be creative about making the high street attractive again. Ms Portas and other advisers in this field could be of use in this change. Just asking the government for subsidy isn’t creative nor good consultancy. People in retail (like people in public transport) need to realise that the way they treat customers helps to determine those customers’ reactions, including whether they come back. Shops have the benefit of having at least some stuff in-stock when you want it. There’s no wait for a delivery, and travel to and from the shop may be cheaper than the shipping-cost. However, I’m sure there are some really creative ideas out there waiting to be had.

  3. says: waramess

    As long as the high streets are populated by retailers who think it is their right to keep office hours they will continue to struggle.

    High Streets with a large supply of empty retail space simply reflect the local population’s disinterest, and what is wrong with that?

    Democracy by any other name

    1. says: mrg

      “Democracy by any other name”

      No, this is something much better than democracy: individual freedom.

    2. says: mrg

      “who think it is their right to keep office hours they will continue to struggle.”

      When I moved back to the UK after several years in Canada, this was one of the things that shocked me. I would expect it to make good business sense for many shops to open in the evenings, possibly *instead* of the mornings.

      Of course, high labour and energy costs don’t help. And you might need a critical mass of shops opening late before you get enough customers to make it worthwhile.

  4. says: John Spiers

    Specialty retail, as opposed to mass market retail, is theatre. Specialty retailers winningly compete on design, not price. If a High Street shop offers anything otherwise available on amazon or a mall, it deserves to fail. (When Walmart comes to town in USA, the gun shops who rid themselves of cheap guns and begin dealing in Beretta and Holland & Holland thrive.) New designs and designers, fresh ideas and products, High Street as lifestyle shopping destination is key. Yes, the government can do two things, stop bailing out banks so property values drop where shopkeepers can afford the rent, and rescind any regulations effected since 1930, so innovators might emerge. (Or maybe 1830. Anyway, roll back Leviathan.)

    John Spiers

  5. says: jacqui

    The burden of overpriced rents and enormous business taxes combined,with stringent parking regulations in tandem with the perceived benefits of the internet have decimated the British High Street.
    It was not necessary to appoint a celebrity quango at vast tax payer expense to diagnose the obvious.

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