We still love the shops

Despite reports of the high street's 'death spiral', young people still want to go out shopping. Gideon Spanier reports

Britain's internet-savvy young people are meant to have fallen out of love with traditional shopping. The high street is in a "death spiral", warns Majestic Wine's chairman, Phil Wrigley.

The Local Data Company reports that the average rate for empty shops in town centres is 14.3 per cent.

David Cameron has been so worried that he commissioned the retail guru Mary Portas to suggest a revival plan, although his latest move to hand her a mere £1m to revive a dozen ailing high streets is hardly inspiring.

It's true that countless retailers from local stores and newsagents to big chains such as Woolworths and Books Etc have closed since recession struck. Others, such as HMV, are struggling, and shoppers don't have much money, with youth unemployment close to one million.

But this weekend many shops will be packed with teenagers and twentysomethings ahead of Valentine's Day – think of those temples of cool, the Apple stores, or fast-fashion meccas such as Top Shop and Miss Selfridge.

A new survey of more than 1,500 people aged 16 to 29 shows 77 per cent "love to shop" in physical stores, according to the advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi. Almost exactly the same proportion of those surveyed said they have visited a high street in the previous week.

However, the survey also shows that 47 per cent of young adults say they have no pride in or connection to their high street, with too many generic shops and "nothing aimed at young people".

The big question is whether it is up to government, national and local, to lead the way in changing attitudes and behaviour. Many experts believe the answer must lie instead with business and local volunteers to improve the shopping experience, rather than just blaming external factors such as rents, rates, parking and out-of-town megastores.

Magnus Djaba, UK chief executive of Saatchi & Saatchi, whose clients include Asda and T-Mobile, says some retailers are struggling because they have become too "transactional".

"It's become 'how fast can I complete a transaction?' But if you think about the Apple store, it's not about 'how fast can I get a transaction off a young person?', it's about the experience," he says.

Apple's Genius Bar – where users who have a problem with their device can go online to book a store appointment in advance – is a great example of improving the consumer experience.

It is easy to argue that online is destroying the high street. However, only 9 per cent of all UK retail sales were online in 2011, according to research firm Mintel, which says the keenest internet shoppers tend be those aged 35-44, rather than the young.

"It's time we stepped back and ignored the media hyperbole," says Richard Perks, director of retail research at Mintel. "The high street is not dying."

Some young shoppers agree.

"I only look online when I'm bored," says Héloïse Brittain, 18, from Cheltenham. "Every couple of weeks, I'll fancy shopping on the high street but sometimes I'd rather go just to have a coffee with friends."

But Alex Goodway, 16, from Willesden, north London, says that she likes to surf the web first before actually going to the shops.

"I probably buy a majority of stuff online because it's easier," she explains. "If I want to try it on, I'll go to the shops."

When she does go out, she prefers a big shopping centre rather than her local high street, simply because the range of choice is better.

It should not come as a surprise that some young shoppers are deserting their high streets.

Yet brands as diverse as Apple and John Lewis have shown that an established physical presence compliments the digital experience and creates a virtuous circle. Retail watchers have been struck by how the auction site eBay recently launched a physical pop-up shop in Soho, London, while Amazon is considering opening a site in Dublin.

For small retailers, there is a different challenge. Clare Richmond, who founded the Crouch End Project in 2007 to improve the London suburb, says they need to work harder to give consumers an incentive to shop locally. In her experience, small shops often don't have the knowhow or the time to market themselves in the internet age.

The key is for businesses to "pull together", rather than operate individually, to create a sense of community. The Crouch End Project created a website to unite retailers, introduced a loyalty card and launched merchandising.

"It gives people a good reason to come back into Crouch End," she says. "We've brought out the pride."

Saatchi & Saatchi found that 41 per cent of 16- to 29-year-olds have considered opening a retail business. Of those, three-quarters would choose their local high street for a site rather than a shopping mall.

There is hope for the high street yet.

Winners and losers

James Thompson

Retail is not rocket science. If a chain sells the right product, at the right price, in the right location, aided by decent customer service, then shoppers will come. Despite a brutal downturn, retailers including Sainsbury's, Waitrose, Iceland, Poundland, Primark and Dunelm, as well as the luxury players Burberry and Mulberry, have shown this theory still holds water. At the opposite end of the spectrum, the failures of debt-laden Peacocks, La Senza and Past Times show the impatience of banks when trading falls away at weaker players. But there is another category of retailer – the structurally challenged with far too many stores, such as Game and HMV – that face a battle for survival, as swaths of consumer expenditure move online. The tidal wave of the internet means these and many other chains could struggle to keep their heads above water in the long term.

Shopping joy and pain

14.3%

Town centre shops empty

77%

Number aged 16 to 29 who "love to shop"

9%

Retail sales online in 2011 (compared to 2% in 2003)

50%

Online fashion sales through retailers with physical stores

SOURCES: SAATCHI & SAATCHI; MINTEL; THE LOCAL DATA COMPANY

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