English and Welsh town centres have lost 8% of their shops on average since 2013, according to a Guardian analysis, with some major destinations such as Stoke and Blackpool shuttering two out of 10 town centre sites over the past five years.
The average toll equates to at least 40 shops closing per town centre in England and Wales, in a stark illustration of the economic conditions faced by retailers and local communities.
88 major town centres across England and Wales were included in the Guardian’s analysis of Ordnance Survey data.
The town centre with the starkest decline is Stoke-on-Trent, which has lost 23% of its 415 stores in just five years.
The seaside towns of Eastbourne and Blackpool have seen the second and third largest reductions in store numbers, with around a fifth of stores lost since 2013. Major cities such as Southampton and Sheffield are also among the worst affected.
No corner of England has been left untouched by the crisis, with town centres in both the north and south badly hit with store closures. 82 of the 88 town centres included in the analysis have seen store numbers reduce since 2013.
The analysis included 80 categories of stores that can be found in typical town centres, including traditional goods retailers such as bookshops, as well as services such as funeral directors and property letting.
Clothing stores are struggling. What will replace them?
Clothing retailers have seen the biggest decline since 2013, with more than 750 shops lost. That’s bad news for the 383,000 people employed in British clothing and footwear stores, almost three quarters of them women, according to latest ONS figures.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, a thousand extra hair and beauty salons have sprung up in our town centres, with more than 40 salons opening in Brighton and Hove alone.
These extremes represent a growing shift in how consumers are using their local town centres. Of the worst performing store types, seven are goods retailers such as footwear, phone and book shops, all generally selling items easily found elsewhere – especially online.
The only category to buck the trend is restaurants, which has had many high-profile casualties in the last 12 months, including Jamie Oliver’s chain of Italian restaurants, which racked up debts of £70m and closed a dozen locations.
Restaurant chains have been hit from all directions as they struggle with over-saturation in an increasingly crowded market as takeaway delivery rivals such as Uber Eats and Deliveroo rapidly expand the selection of food you can get delivered to your door.
The vast majority of the public associate charity shops with town centre decline but the number of charity shops in major town centres has fallen in recent years, with a reduction of 250 stores in the town centres included in this analysis.
But not all types of store are suffering the same fate thanks to the growing “experience economy” that’s booming in many city centres.
Pubs and bars have seen massive growth in city centres such as Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds, all of which have large student populations and have quickly built up a reputation for thriving nightlife.
Convenience stores and independent supermarkets have also grown in almost all town centres. Whilst Tesco Express and Sainsbury’s Local stores continued to expand, much of the growth can be attributed to the rapid rise of specialist vaping and tobacco shops. In just five years the number of town centre tobacco and vaping stores has risen from around 38 to 340, almost an 800% increase.
Why is town centre retail declining?
Shoppers have suffered for more than a decade now with stagnant wages and relatively high levels of inflation, forcing cash-strapped families to make difficult spending decisions in order to cut costs.
The 2018 Christmas shopping period saw the largest ever share of retail sales go to online stores, with more than one in five pounds being spent online in November and December.
Amazon was one of the big winners, with Cyber Monday described as the biggest shopping day in its 24-year history.
These pressures continue to tighten the retail landscape, with many physical stores struggling to compete. Poundworld, Maplin and Toys R Us all disappeared from UK town centres last year, whilst House of Fraser was sold off to Sports Direct.
HMV also collapsed into administration for the second time in six years as they said retailers faced “a tsunami of challenges”, including weakening consumer confidence, rising costs and business rates pressures.
Retail analyst Richard Hyman believes that the only answer is for around 20% of retail spaces to close in the coming years. “Retailers have done all sorts of things to paper over the cracks, but what the markets need is for retail to get smaller.”
More closures and buyouts are inevitable as physical retailers adapt to consumers’ new spending habits, but the growth of leisure and services in town centres offers a glimpse of how town centres can redefine themselves to better fit 21st century life.
The underlying dataset is Ordnance Survey’s Points of Interest database, which is a comprehensive directory of all public and privately-owned businesses, education and leisure services in Britain. For this analysis we only included business categories relating to retail, eating and drinking and personal services (such as hair salons).
The town centre boundaries were defined by identifying the largest area of dense retail inside each of the core city shapes defined by the ONS in their Urban Audit Core Cities boundaries. Only town centres larger than 0.2km2 were used in the analysis. London was omitted as its size made comparisons with other town centres unreliable.
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