Cause for optimism as city bucks national retail trend

Apr 22, 2019

HIGH STREET retailers are adapting to survive as shops react to the rapid growth in online trade.

Milton Keynes saw the largest drop in the number of shops for five years, with a net 23 store closures last year across its shopping centres, retail parks and high streets.

However, Bletchley saw a net gain of three stores opening. Stony Stratford had a net gain of one while Wolverton’s retail remained unchanged.

Figures commissioned by business advice firm PwC show that 36 stores closed in Milton Keynes in 2018, with only 13 openings. However, parts of the high street are  thriving, with vaping stores and tobacconists and booksellers, as well as cake makers, decorators and suppliers, convenience stores and ice cream parlors  opening new premises across the region.

Closures have come principally by banks and financial institutions, charity shops and mobile phone shops. This reflects the growth in customer demand for online and apps and in-home leisure.

PwC says the growth in online commerce and the high costs of business rates are combining to leave retail facing some of its biggest challenges. But retailers are adapting.

  • Pictured: Shoppers queued for hours for the opening of the Primark store in centre:mk earlier this month.

Andy Lyon, retail and consumer markets leader for PwC in the Midlands, said: “There is still an important role for the high street to play, as it secures a sustainable future to support online and leisure activity. We are seeing the high street evolve into an experiential destination, be it through leisure experiences, or retailers restructuring their physical space to support online activity by showcasing products, and attracting footfall through parcel collection and returns facilitation.

“Key to this is to look at not what is failing but what is thriving through consumer demand and how retailers are making smart changes.”

Like many other areas, Milton Keynes is suffering from online competition, rising costs and “subdued” consumer spending, he added. But there is cause for optimism, illustrated by the opening of a new Primark store in centre:mk.

“This key investment in MK is testament to the attractiveness of the shopping centre to retailers and will draw much footfall to that area and, indeed, visitors into the town,” said Mr Lyon. “It is reassuring to see the local high streets of smaller towns, such as Bletchley and Stony Stratford,  are doing well in the face of a challenging retail environment.”

The research, compiled for PwC by the Local Data Company, reported that a record net 2,481 stores disappeared from the UK’s top 500 high streets in 2018. The analysis also observed a slowdown in leisure, in particular restaurants and pubs, which posted a net loss of 506 outlets, reversing three years of consecutive growth since 2015. Market saturation, cost challenges, and a shift in consumer preferences towards in-home leisure have exacerbated the impact on the sector, not only leading to closures but also discouraging new openings.

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