Can Mary Portas save the high street?

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Just as Mary Portas is appointed to take stock of the UK high street and orchestrate its revival, it’s dealt another crushing blow. This time in the shape of Mothercare, which is to shut 110 town centre stores to focus on out of town sites, overseas and multi-channel operations.

Mothercare’s results speak for themselves and while pulling out of 100 town centre locations does nothing for high streets, it is the logical step for the business. What retail business in its right mind would continue to operate in an area that is dragging down its performance?

Profit plummeted to £8.8m last year from £32.5m. While its international business reported a 17% rise in sales to £206.4m UK like for likes fell 4%.

Mothercare is in the unfortunate position of being in the squeezed middle market.

The supermarkets provide good quality babywear at competitive prices and will only continue to do so. It’s yet to be seen if Tesco will follow through and roll out standalone baby stores under the Tesco Baby World fascia trialled last year, and Morrisons acquisition of online retailer Kiddicare adds to its already weighty slice of the online market.

At the other end of the spectrum, Mamas and Papas and JoJo Maman Bebe happily cater for the yummy mummies.

Mary Portas, the woman famed for her Queen of Shops and Secret Shopper TV programme, has this week been tasked by the Government to review our languishing town centres and kick them into shape.

It’s a tall order and will take something radical to shift consumer perceptions about town centres and make them relevant once more.

Vacant stores drag down whole shopping districts and create a general feeling of unease among shoppers and retailers. If, as can often be the case, a town centre offers nothing different that what a shopper can get in their local Tesco when they do the weekly shop, what incentive is there to visit?

Should retailers rally together to try to “bring back the bustle” to town centres as Portas, and the government wants, or should they just admit that the concept doesn’t fit with consumer needs and move on, as Mothercare is, to focus on arms of the business that do drive growth and turn a profit?

But, if Mothercare, with its scale can’t make the high street a feasible option, what hope for small and independent retailers for whom international expansion and multichannel strategies are not realistic ways to buoy the business?

If there is a way to make town centres more relevant, then Mary Portas may well be the woman to discover it, but I fear many of her common sense and even more radical solutions will fall at the first hurdle.

The corporate rents necessary to secure a retail site are prohibitive at best for an independent or small-scale retailer to afford it in the first place. On top of that add in the lack of convenient parking and the excessive charges for it when it is there, and that’s reason enough for consumers to steer clear of the high street and head to the out of town retail parks which have been purpose built for modern needs. Where everything is in one place, parking is easy and free, shops are easy to navigate and accessible.

With all the will in the world, unless these fundamentals change, I can’t see town centres returning to their former glory even with the help of Mary Portas driving the agenda.

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