Talking Shop

talking-heads

Monday saw the first meeting of the The Future High Streets Forum.  Yet another talking shop put together by the government to talk about…shops.  This of course comes hot on the heels of the Portas review which pretty much identified all the problems and then set about trying to convince us that they could be dealt with by the judicious application of some showbiz fairy dust.

Of course when I say ‘hot on the heels’ I’m using an approved government timescale.  We’re now something like 18 months on since the Queen of Strops published her initial findings, and just over a year since the first audition tapes for her Pilot bandwagon were submitted and considered by an X-Factor panel comprised of herself and a certain Mr Green (AKA Grant Shapps).  Judging by the glacial speed of most government initiatives that’s probably Olympic standard.

After Shapp’s promotion to apologist-in-chief for the coalition, Mark Prisk was handed the delicately poisoned chalice of Minister for the High Street, a position created shortly after the Portas review was published in an attempt to show just how seriously the government regarded it.

Even though at first glance Prisk seemed like a much more able candidate for the position, his apparent lack of understanding about the problems we face seems to have eclipsed even his predecessors total ineptitude for effective policy making.  This has only been matched by his hitherto monumental lack of action, which may be why he’s letting a whole heap of ideas flood out now, like a backed up colon after a dodgy curry.

According to Mr Prisk, discussions at the first forum meeting focussed on speeding up the mentoring initiatives supposedly established during the set up of the Portas Pilots.  He also wants to offer Town Teams workshops, secondments and mentoring from over 30 organisations, including the British Council of Shopping Centres, the ACS and the British Parking Association to provide advice on aspects such as retail and tourism, the night time economy, public space design and age-accessibility.

So a veritable smorgasbord of limited options topped off  with a selection from the sweet trolley of the bleedin’ obvious!

Bedtime stories

As always this new improved super-forum is taking the approach that all the problems the high street faces are of it’s own making.  They start from the premise that none of us have the first idea why we ended up in this mess.  We’re all such terribly naive and inept businesspeople that we need a big brother or sister to hold our hands, read us a bedtime story and tell us where the monsters are hiding.  Apparently, reduced consumer demand and a failing economy can all be swept away with a few tired ideas, such as market days and pop-up shops.  Greedy intransigent landlords, hocked up to the eyeballs, and councils and governments ignoring economic imperitives can be dealt with by creating  a new logo and installing some extra street furniture.

That’s not to say that the people on the panel aren’t qualified to offer effective advice.  Far from it.  In fact I’ve got a lot of respect for most of them, even if they do seem to be predominately rooted in the property industry.  It’s just that there’s really nothing new to bring to the table now.  Most of the problems now being faced were identified and listed chapter and verse in the Portas review and most people, me included, agreed that the key areas for concern were in there.  If those in power chose to sideline the important issues with circus tricks and razzle-dazzle why should we think it’ll be any different this time around?

At the launch of the Portas Pilots both Mary and Grant Shapps were fond of saying how they’d accepted “nearly all” of the the points in her report.  Carefully  and disingenuously avoiding mention of the 3 main areas they ignored – high rents, high rates and high parking charges.  Without dealing with those points, the kinds of suggested improvements that are frequently trotted out by various experts are far removed from the key issues that have undermined the viability of the high street.  Superficial changes and local initiatives are all very well, but they’re cherries on the cake.  The problem is we don’t have much cake left after local and national government have finished taking their slices.

Why the government is so reluctant to take positive action on things like business rates really is beyond me now.  They seem to do nothing but thrash about looking for any option other than the most expedient solutions open to them as the people in charge.  The argument seems to be that they can’t be seen to be directly supporting private enterprise with public money.  Yet in the same breath they happily justify shovelling skip loads of cash in the direction of bankers who’ll just as blithely trouser huge wedges of the stuff in the guise of bonuses or just stack it up in the corner and gaze lovingly at it.  Not only is that direct support for one of the most unpopular and bloated sectors of private industry, it’s the very same sector that brought most of us to the door of ruin just a few years ago.  Yet we’re all supposed to be in dread of bankers moving their cash skimming operations to foreign climes, whereas Vince Cable seems to be pretty keen to see retailers head overseas as soon as humanly possible.

Do the math(s)!

bad_maths_example

Business rates are, along with rents, the two most corrosive factors eating away at the heart of the high street today.  In a few days the second of two massive hikes in business rates will kick in, leaving the retail economy shouldering the burden of over half a billion pounds worth of additional taxes imposed over the past two years in this single tax alone.  Yet Mark Prisk seems not to have noticed.

In a statement about the new forum he said “Over the last year this Government has worked hard to help boost the high street, including initiatives to simplify planning, revamp the public realm, cut the business rate burden and revive local markets”.

Now I don’t know if he’d normally describe an increase of £525M as a ‘cut’ but if so I think perhaps he needs to buy a new abacus or at the very least have a word with a professional about providing appropriate medication.  Self delusion is one thing, but trying to drag the rest of us into his fantasy world is probably a step too far, even for a government minister.

Although to be fair, this isn’t the first time this bit of spin has been thrown out there.  Whilst watching the Andrew Marr show a year or so ago I almost pebbledashed my TV with fruity granola after hearing  Call-Me-Dave Cameron announce to all the world that his government were “tackling business rates”.  Again a definition of ‘tackling’ that I don’t think would have got him very far on the rugby fields of Eton.

Peddling this kind of PR piffle serves to demonstrate just how little the government really wants to tackle the core structural issues that are undermining every high street retailer today.  In the past 2 years they talked a lot and walked very little.  To put this into sharper context we need to realise that the sum total of all the cash handouts given to towns under the various soundbite schemes dreamt up by Shapps and Prisk amounts to little more than 8% of the increases in business rates imposed since they were announced.  If there really was a will to fix the high street we all know what would be the first demonstration of intent – a freeze in business rates in the last budget.  That hasn’t happened so just like last time we’re expected to be satisfied with the sop of yet another inquiry.

And timing is everything.  The deadline for last years Portas Pilot audition video submissions was coincidentally the day before £350M worth of extra rates bills had to be paid by retailers.  This year we have a new talking shop that meets less than a week after the chancellor smacked us in the mouth with a further £175M hike and expected us to to smile about it through broken teeth.

Lies, damned lies and politics

how_to_be_a_sneaky_politician_2_button-p145796806303616259qd2b_400

We all know that no amount of pop-up talking shops and secondments are going to solve these structural issues.  Those in government know it too, and every time we swallow another piece of bullshit pseudo policy we’re letting them get away with the subterfuge.  There’s no substitute for proper action from a motivated and principled  government.  That’s something we need NOW, not in another year, not after yet another report or another raft of hair-brained ineffectual political stunts.

It’s going to take a lot more than just talk to get these problems solved.   Sadly though, it seems talk is still all we’re going to get.

Advertisements

Inquire Within

cable_1825216c

It’s just been announced that parliament are to hold an inquiry into the state of retail in the UK.  Be still my beating heart, another inquiry, we’re all SAVED!

This on the same day that Vince  – have you seen my glasses? – Cable put on his comfortable shoes and wandered on to the stage at Retail Week Live to tell us he’s looking into it all for us and will be “having a word” with the chancellor about business rates.   Meanwhile explaining that the best place for UK retail is apparently outside the UK.   Irony is obviously not a concept that Mr Cable is particularly familiar with.

Excuse me if I don’t wet myself with anticipation Uncle Vince, but didn’t you say that about the banks a couple of weeks ago when it was revealed that, rather than lending out cash to entrepreneurs under the new government scheme designed to encourage banks to do just that, you let at least one of them trouser another large wad of public cash and lend out even less?!  This after a threatening them all with regulation if they didn’t play nice a couple of years back.

After taking a stand on this issue that was about as aggressive as a 5 year old with a spud gun, he announced that he’d be “having conversations” with them too.   I’m sure they’re all cowering in their luxury riverside penthouses and waiting with mounting terror waiting for the gold plated phone to ring.

And now we have another inquiry.

But hang on, didn’t we have one of those carried out only a year or so ago, by someone famous?  Yes, that lady off the telly, the one with the pointy finger and the knickers.  Now what was her name?

What exactly they expect to find from another inquiry is anyone’s guess.  The problems have already been laid in front of them and the best they could come up with was a talent show and a TV programme.

These problems haven’t gone away just because they’ve ignored them.  They certainly haven’t been made all better by dint of them handing out some cash to a few selected towns, even if any of them had actually got around to spending it.  In fact they’ve got worse.   Perhaps those extra holes in the high street and the additional number retail employees on the dole might have been a tiny clue.

After a raft of major high street collapses over the past few months one would expect them to take the information that they already have and run with it.  Come up with some radical solutions.  Show some leadership.  Or at the very least perhaps not make the situation worse by whacking an extra £170M on to the retail business rates bill in a little under 3 weeks.

4cb4d79ff03380305ca8697223c9c5badabf8999

This really does beggar belief.  It’s ‘Yes Minister’ politics made flesh.  Just keep inquiring but never actually DO anything.   Meanwhile throw billions at the banks and penny pinch on an industry that contributes around 11% to GDP when we ask if we could perhaps forgo a paltry amount in taxation, just this once.

Why don’t they just show us some respect and be honest?  Admit that they don’t give a toss as long as the tax money keeps rolling in and the retail cash cow keeps mooing.  I know it’s not politically expedient to say that, but at least we’d all know where we stand.

Right now that seems to be far too close to Vince Cable in the gents toilets of the last chance saloon, while he pisses on our shoes and tells us it’s raining.

Freefall retail?

Shop to letWelcome to my new blog.   For my first post I thought I’d jump right in the deep end!

Evidence from the Local Data Company and Price Waterhouse Coopers yesterday highlighted the unprecedented number of store closures that have been seen in the last 12 months.  This was driven mainly by the gathering pace of large retail chains turning up their toes and other struggling companies letting leases lapse when they come to an end.

It’s hardly surprising to most of us out there at the sharp end of retail that the status quo can’t continue unabashed in the way that most property investors and some analysts seem to think it can.

Only last year I was embroiled in something of an online spat with the author of a report from CBRE who in my opinion was whistling in the dark over the idea that chain retailers would continue to open stores at the same rate they always had.  The whistling later achieved deafening proportions as the idea that the internet had not had any major impact on the high streets was laboured in this lengthy tome.  Given the opportunity,  I think it may have gone on to prove that black was white and that dogs could do basic arithmetic, but they probably needed to get the report out before reality overtook the theory.

Killer catalogues

The fact is the internet is having a pervasive effect on all aspects of the high street.  It’s been eating away like concrete cancer at the foundations of what we’ve all came to know and love as shop keepers, and we’re only now starting to see the cracks on the surface.

CataloguesIt’s effect was probably underestimated in the early years as we all continued to ride a wave of unbridled consumerism within traditional channels.  The idea that the internet could take over from ‘real’ shops was treated with the same disdain as the unfulfilled predictions from the 60s and 70s that catalogue shopping would prove an overall category killer.

But what wasn’t factored into these assessments was the ease by which technology would  pervade all aspects of our lives.  Even that wouldn’t have been enough on it’s own, but what really started to incubate the disease was what was happening to the real world property model and just how quickly that was going push things beyond the tipping point.

In previous retail revolutions there had been no viable alternative to shops.  Now there was.  As consumers embraced online, more retailers, new and old, saw it as an opportunity.  This in turn facilitated more choice and more ease of use for consumers which in turn encouraged more people online.  It became self fuelling.

Meanwhile at the other end of the fulcrum, property costs were starting to look like a burden you didn’t need to be carrying.  If all these pure-play retailers were making a killing online, what was the point in paying eye-watering rent and rates?  In fact as these costs continued to go up, the internet was forcing margins to become slimmer with the retailer squeezed in the middle.   Something that the catalogue revolution didn’t have going for it back in the days of brothel creepers and Beatlemania was the effect that these unrealistic property values would have on the whole DNA of retail.

Property Bonanza

The plain fact is that the costs of running shops is now too high.   Business rates are the current hobby horse, being as we’re coming up to the time of the year when the chancellor traditionally tells retailers to sod off when they ask him to consider a rates reduction or freeze in his next budget.   This year his two fingered salute will be amid our pleading on a collective bended knee for him to take his foot off our neck and maybe, just maybe, take a look at the real world from behind that rictus grin that he seems to be afflicted with at most public engagements.

But rents are the root cause of these problems, responsible in the first place for the level of rates we pay due to their effect on property valuations.  The cost of stores has been ratcheting up over the past 20 years like some sort of medieval torture device.  Landlords and property developers knew a good thing when they saw it and they capitalised on the rush to the high street.  Not really something any of us could really blame them for doing, bearing in mind that all us business folk are money grabbing, capitalist toe-rags at heart.

And I don’t really blame them, well not entirely anyway.  They wouldn’t have got away with it if there hadn’t been a veritable swarm of  eager fresh faced retailers, thrusting fistfulls of easy-come cash into the air, desperate to stake out another corner of a foreign concept shopping mall that will forever be Clinton Cards or Blacks or LaSenza or Jessops et al, without a thought for how long the retail bubble could last.  Of course we all now know how long it lasted for them, and it was quite a bit less than forever.

For sale signsIn turn these snow-blinded captains of industry were having their pockets lined by investors, venture capitalists and banks who were convinced they’d discovered the secret to alchemy.  In league with eagerly complicit surveyors they could make any deal, no matter how stupid, look good on a paper.  Right before they’d make a toy aeroplane out of it to carry them all off to bonus heaven.  Based on this sort of economic fairy story, valuers pretty much doubled the number they first thought of and used that as the basis of equity to debt deals that would have made even the most brazen ponzi scheme look like a charitable foundation for orphaned kittens.

Now with shopping centres and retailers being funded by roughly the same financial institutions, we’re all hurtling down the mountain side together waiting for either a tree branch to slap us in the face or the sheer drop to open up beneath us.   I say all, not because everyone has bought into the madness, I know many haven’t, but because we will all feel the impact when those that have hit the rocks below.

The only way is up

Despite claims to the contrary, landlords are still locked into forcing up rents at every opportunity.  Often with huge debts to service, they have no choice but to look on the current situation as a temporary blip.  They spin the crisis while convincing themselves and the markets that ideas like pop-up stores are a great new innovation, even though when they were simply called temporary lets they were regarded as far less desirable.  Self delusion has become an artform.  Accepting the new reality is just too terrifying for them and their financial backers to contemplate.  Whilst government is apparently still convinced that they can continue to enthusiastically milk the retail cash cow, even if it does have BSE and an advanced case of mastitis

All the while customers are becoming ever more savvy at negotiating the new retail seascape, and in the most part they’re looking for the shallow waters.  Price is king on the internet, quality too, but price usually trumps quality if you chuck in a nice over-used euphemism like ‘Value’ wherever possible.  And we all know how well ‘Value’ beefburgers have worked out recently don’t we?

These customers don’t care if your shop is going under, why should they?  They care about where they can get the best deal, and now more than ever that’s on the internet.  Why?  Because those traditional retailers stuck on the high street are locked into a death struggle with recalcitrant landlords and ignorant politicians and can’t afford to match the razor thin margins of pure-play online retailers.

Where will it all end?  That’s something I hope to be around long enough to find out.  There are some perhaps positive glimmers on the horizon, but right now it’s not possible to know if that’s the new day breaking or the sun exploding on the other side of the world.

Will we need sun cream or a nuclear bunker?  Stick around, I think I can hear the dawn chorus.

sunrise_from_space_2560x1600