The chain store massacre

Posted: November 7, 2012

I am indebted to William W Watt for the quote: “Do not put your faith in what statistics say until you have carefully considered what they do not say.”


Last month the mainstream media made a big splash with a study of 500 town centres by retail data provider Local Data Company for PricewaterhouseCoopers. It revealed that chain stores closed at the rate of over 30 a day in July and August, compared to ‘just’ 20 a day for the first six months of 2012.


The Daily Mail described it as: “A dramatic escalation of the crisis on the nation’s High Streets [which] will raise the spectre of yet more urban centres becoming ‘ghost towns’.” The Guardian agreed, stating: “The figures will spark more concern among campaigners and politicians that Britain’s High Streets are being abandoned by the retail chains, leading to long-term damage as stores are boarded up and shoppers head to out-of-town centres.” The Telegraph’s headline almost seemed to sigh: “Economic slowdown ravages the High Street.”


The net number of closures (shops closing minus shops opening) was 953 in the first half of the year, compared to 174 for the whole of 2011, but let’s bear Mr Watt’s quote in mind. These figures are for branches of chain stores and there have been some high profile casualties this year, including Game Group, Peacocks, Past Times and Clinton Cards and, more recently, JJB Sports.


A separate study by LDC – which doesn’t seem to have picked up anything like the same amount of coverage – suggested that there is an upside to this chain store massacre though, because replacing the multiples is a whole new wave of independents. There was a net increase (shops opening minus shops closing) of 852 independent retailers during the first half of 2012.


There’s no doubt the face of the High Street is changing – with ugly pound shops, pawnbrokers, phone unlockers and payday loan outlets increasing in number – but, in my experience, town centres which have a rich mix of quirky independent retailers, such as Cheltenham, Brighton and Bath, don’t seem to have any problem with vacant units or falling visitor numbers.