Liam Halligan: How can we save the British high street?

As retail sales slump, can anything be done to halt the decline?

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Retail sales fell again in August, for the fourth successive month. Britain’s retail sector, one of the driving forces of our economy, seems to be stalling.

Across the country, retailers are struggling with supply chain shortages, just as high streets are hollowing out, as the way we shop and consume continues rapidly to change.

Retail employs one in ten of the UK workforce – and they’re disproportionately young and female, with retail providing a vital source of valuable and often family-friendly part-time work. What we’re talking about here is a vital part of the UK economy.

Yet, so far this year, our retailer sector has been on a roller-coaster ride.

UK retailing has perhaps never been in flux more than now. The long-term move from bricks and mortar retailing to online has accelerated during this pandemic. Debenhams – almost 250 years old, with hundreds of branches, has gone.

Top Shop and Miss Selfridge - gone. Laura Ashley – gone.

And now, on top of that, ONS surveys confirm that retail businesses are finding it harder and harder to get the materials, goods and services they need – not least transport logistics, given those shipping delays and driver shortages – to keep their businesses on the road. Even retail thoroughbred John Lewis is chartering a fleet of extra ships, to make sure its Christmas stock arrives in time.

Five years ago, just 10pc of retail sales were online, rising gradually to 20pc at the start of last year. Since then, online growth has surged during this pandemic, and now stands at around 30pc of all retail by value.

Almost two thirds of Brits worry the High Street is at risk of disappearing, not least in the UK’s smaller towns and cities - and is it any wonder. This is one of the major commercial and cultural trends of our time.

So as retail sales slump, that’s our “On The Money” debate today. “How can we save the British High Street?”