BBC News Magazine

Page last updated at 11:33 GMT, Thursday, 22 October 2009 12:33 UK

How the recession has changed your High Street


Shoppers assess the impact of the downturn on their street

By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine

A year after we first visited Shirley High Street, the Magazine returns to witness how it has fared in the recession. Further down, we look at five ways the typical High Street has changed in the downturn.

"This is where Woolies had their clothes," says Stacy, standing by row after row of brightly-coloured washing detergents.

The red Woolworths branding on the shelves has long been replaced by the logo of 99p Stores, which moved into this site in Shirley, Southampton, last December.

Within a few days it was open for business, taking £76,000 in the first five days, 50% more than its bosses expected.

Shirley High St sign
One year ago, the BBC began monitoring Shirley
It's a typical High Street, with a mix of independent and chains
A bus ride away from Southampton city centre, it has 259 businesses and 13,900 people

The loss of Woolworths in Shirley was echoed in more than 800 High Streets across the UK, ending a 99-year history in British towns and cities.

It's a store greatly missed by Stacy Lee, 29, but her mum Carol is less reflective and comes to 99p Stores three times a week.

Clutching a basket holding a crochet window curtain, a pack of Fox's Party biscuits and three bottles of Lenor fabric softener, she asks: "Where else could you get a six-foot blind for 99p?"

The shelves behind her resemble Woolworths of old, with felt tip pens, poster art sets and calendars. Indeed, the manager says that some customers took three months to realise the shop was no longer Woolworths.

Even some of the staff remain. Cashier Maggie Bell was with Woollies for 20 years and now she's sitting in the same spot but with a different uniform.


But it's not all business as usual outside. Crusty Cottage bakery opposite is to close down next week. Irene Parker, who has been there for 10 years, blames the disappearance of Woollies.

"It changed a lot. There are less people down this end now. The 99p store gets quite a few in but I haven't seen them walking along this side of the road. The recession has had an impact, with a lot of shops closing and more charity shops."

Shops in Shirley
Changing faces of Shirley

The Manor pub has recently called "last orders", while a hair salon, a women's clothes shop and a stationery shop have closed their doors. But there are still far fewer vacant shops in Shirley than elsewhere - 7% is half the national average and one-sixth the level in some towns.

The street has three times the national average for charity shops and discount stores, according to the Local Data Company, and this is a source of regret for some shoppers.

"There used to be a few butchers and a lovely bread shop," recalls Priscilla Hafey, 64, who has lived in the area all her life.

The loss of such businesses pre-dates the current recession, to the rise of the supermarket and the popularity of the weekly shop. But other changes in Shirley are more closely linked to the economic troubles. Unemployment has doubled in the area in 15 months, which means spending habits have changed.

Loss of Woolworths
Fewer women's and children's clothes shops
Increase in charities and discounts
More empty premises
Smaller supermarkets moving in

There are new shops like Cash Generator that offer payments in instalments over weeks and months. The "luxury" businesses like the tanning salon and Chinese restaurant have felt the pinch, while shoe repairs and the shop selling camping equipment - as people shun foreign holidays - have prospered.

Business is also booming at the charity shops. There are almost five in a row on one stretch. One of them, Clic Sargent, says it is 14% up on this time last year.

So that's the story of one High Street. What's been happening in streets across the UK?


Nearly one in five women's and children's clothes shops across the UK have closed since 1 January (see graph below). Adams Childrenswear closed 147 branches after being put into administration.

"It's the one area which is very much a discretionary spend," says Matthew Hopkinson, business development director at Local Data Company.

"The door has suddenly shut on the consumer credit that was spent on womenswear and childrenswear, so people are instead going to George at Asda or to discount retailers, rather than paying the full Monty."

Graph of shop closures


The most visible evidence of the recession is evident with a walk down any High Street. Vacancy rates trebled in the first six months of the year, according to some analysts.

Currently the figure is about 13.5% nationally, says Experian, which predicts this will increase to 15% by the end of 2009, before a partial recovery by June 2010 to 14.5%.


Last month it was reported that there were 1,423 discount stores in the UK, an increase of 60% since the start of the downturn.

Shops like Poundland and 99p Stores have exploited the determination of consumers to save money where possible, taking advantage of former Woolworths stores where they can.

They have also benefited from the excess of stock from places like China and the Phillippines. When demand first fell at the start of the recession, it took a while for supply to diminish accordingly.

Discount stores have even moved into more affluent areas like Tunbridge Wells and Stratford-upon-Avon.

The 99p Stores celebrated the opening of its 99th shop in August. It has reported a 7% annual hike in like-for-like sales and estimates it will have doubled in size within three years.


"The number of charity shops is not great for other retailers as it puts others off from moving in with new shops," says Greg Hodge of Planet Retail.

"It's the people they attract to the High Street, the elderly and people with less money. If the High Street becomes taken over by them, the younger affluent people aren't there."

With a domino-like effect, that then puts off developers which have the power to draw in big brand names.

They benefit from reduced rates and they have a flexible supply chain - the public, he says. They can act fast because they don't need to set up a fantastic store, implement IT software, tag their products or implement the back office to monitor their stock.

So will they stay? Possibly, says Mr Hodge, if High Streets continue to lose out to online shopping. But if you believe the High Street can survive and that shops will re-open after the recession, then there could be a turnaround in about 18 months time.


Tesco Express and Sainsbury's Local have taken advantage of the vacant premises to expand on the High Streets, while Waitrose is about to launch 300 smaller convenience stores.

Along with efforts to stimulate new housing schemes in High Streets, it could be that the UK is heading back towards invigorating its town centres again, says Mr Hopkinson.

"It's partly a political move by the supermarkets, in response to the charge that they are killing the High Streets, but I think it's a good thing. We are seeing attempts to get people back to the centres."

Councils have to sit down with chain stores and independent retailers to work out how best to attract consumers back, to the detriment of neither, he says, because too many town centres look the same, dominated by big chains.

This kind of concerted action, along with more consumer-led campaigns to support local town centres, could mean the comeback of the High Street is just around the corner.

Here is a selection of your comments.

Is it not evident that the majority of small town high streets are becoming drive through areas for motorists? Instead of being encouraged to park and shop, drivers are deterred by yellow lines, exorbitant parking charges and wheel clamps for anyone who dares to stop in the wrong place. Is it surprising that out-of-town shopping centres and supermarkets, with their plentiful free parking are doing so well?
Mike, Chard, Somerset

It's not just happening here... where my partner's parents live in the south of France it's the same story; lovely, old, bustling town centre (with limited parking) gets new and very convenient just-out-of-town vacuous, garish superstore and the town rots from the inside out. The solution is very simple - if you don't want this then do not go to supermarkets and chain stores. Tescos and Starbucks will never get so much as a penny from me. So I pay a little more for my specs, bacon 'n' eggs, hardware... everything... but a little goes a long way.
Togalosh, Brum

How can people be complaining that the high streets are dying when they are the very people that caused it to happen? There would not be a problem with high streets if people shopped in them, but, with most people shopping in a supermarket there is no demand for the high street. If you care so much, go out and shop locally, get your friends to do the same and shops will survive while they have customers.
Jos, Leeds

The death of so much of our high streets is not just due to the recession, it's also down to the unbridled, rapacious growth of the likes of Tesco who have squeezed out local shops with their catch-all approach and their desire to enrich their shareholders rather than the "community", a word with which the Tesco board will likely be unfamiliar.
Fergus Stewart, Manchester

For a return to viable High Streets, there needs to be several further changes. We'll never get back to the original values anyway. The existence of upward only rent reviews in leaseholds needs to be stopped. Secondly, shop rentals (and therefore capital shop values) have to fall. It's gradually started but a long way to go. When rents go down sufficiently, and landlords stop strangling their golden geese, things will improve. Finally, why do charity shops have lower commercial rates status? If they want to trade alongside conventional retailers in the High St, they should have to pay the same in service charges.
Richard, Chesham

Bring back the butcher the baker and the candlestick maker, says one comment, but the reason they disappeared in the first place was that residents of the towns went to the discount stores and supermarkets for cheaper prices. Shoppers look for best value and unfortunately put no premium on service or convenience hence the loss of the High Street shops and many more will follow in the recession as shoppers tighten the purse strings.
Margie Davidson, Peterhead

I grew up in a flat above my father's shop in a High Street in the 1960s/70s. It was not only a place to shop but also to encounter and chat with friends, neighbours, councillors and the local bobby, reinforcing social cohesion. Let's support our High Streets and have a community again!
Nick Goodall, Southampton, UK

Fret Music is the only shop worth going to in Shirley, so as long as that is still there it's alright!
Gareth, Canterbury (formerly southampton), UK

I moved to Tamworth 16 years ago having lived in Peterborough and London. I was attracted to a small but vibrant market town and oh how it's changed. The people of Tamworth must be very sociable, when not giving to charitable shops, they must be buying cards for friends or texting them on their new mobiles. when not doing this they are enjoying a coffee. Well that's how it would appear if you look at the shops. Now if you want to buy a book or a magazine then you have a real problem. You used to visit the centre to buy essentials now you only go if it is essential. The sad thing is that virtually every small town you visit now looks exactly the same and the alternative is the ubiquitous out of town shopping centre - Curry's Comets Halfords ad infinitum. God, this country is a depressing mess.
David Jones, Tamworth

Charity shops need not spell doom for a high street, not if they are done right. My high street has a very high concentration of charity shops, a co-op but also an independent butcher, fishmonger, grocers and corner shops, stationers, cafes, a chocolate shop, delis etc etc etc.
Owen G, Edinburgh, Scotland

We have had a battle in our high street, sadly Aston Martin have moved on and Tesco saw an open door, the residents of Newport Pagnell fought tooth and nail to keep them out and won this time round. I totally agree with everyone, the individuality of our high streets is sacred, yet is ever decreasing, bring back the butcher, baker and candlestick maker....
Sarah K, Newport Pagnell, Milton Keynes

I'm in my late 20s and on a reasonable salary - and I love charity shops. They are easily the best place for second hand books and games, and often have a fair selection of music and films as well. But the best thing about them is that they all have different stock, so if you are looking for something specific you might find it somewhere.
Matthew, Sheffield

I work in an area of Cardiff known as Whitchurch and amongst around 20 shops at least six are charity shops, the rest are salons or restaurants. It's no wonder you don't see anyone below the age of 40 in the street with such shops. Sounds like Shirley is fast going that way
Stephen, Cardiff

I now live within a bus ride of a cash convertor, a "Gold Wanted" shop and two pawnbrokers. This in a High Street that used to have an Alders AND a CO-OP department store. I still do my best to shop locally but do find myself in charity stores more simply because they now offer more choice than they once did.
Katherine, Eltham

That's just great! As if high streets weren't already carbon copies of each other, this will finally put an end to any charm that individual high streets may have had. Just what we want: to go to a neighbourhood and be greeted with the ubiquitous look of a Tesco, next door to a Next, next door to a Boots...
Tanya D, London, UK

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