James Moore: The high street of the future: huge chains and a few boutique players

 

Outlook There has been much excitement and bluster about the early figures emerging from planet retail. But while footfall figures and early numbers from John Lewis offer some talking points, they don't really tell us all that much about the bigger picture, which will only emerge after the new year when trading statements start to be released.

Boxing Day, when footfall was up despite striking Tube drivers serving as the belated appearance of the Grinch that stole Christmas, cheered. The clouds were back on the 27th. But John Lewis said it was doing fine, thanks very much.

Perhaps the best indicator of clouds on the horizon, however, was the fact that it took only a day or so of post-Christmas trading for yet another high-street chain to call in the administrators. Jeans retailer D2 has joined La Senza in debtor's purgatory. More, including Past Times, will surely follow in the new year.

Aggressive discounting by those with the financial firepower to manage with wafer-thin margins is what has helped to maintain consumers' interest. The Napoleonic jibe suggesting that England is a nation of shopkeepers should be rephrased. This is a nation of shoppers, and there's nothing like a sign saying 25 per cent or more off to get its citizens reaching for their maxed-out credit cards, whether on the high street or online.

Those with too little clout or too much debt to indulge in the discounting binge will find the going very tough, though, and that will likely be reflected in earnings statements later in the new year, rather than the sales figures which will start coming in next week.

It will also be reflected in a slew of insolvencies. They will keep the accountancy firms happy if no one else. With the internet channel continuing to grow like China on amphetamines, and dominated by big guns, we may be on the verge of a clear-out unlike anything seen before.

If there is a silver lining, it may be the creation of a two-tier retail market, dominated by giant mega-chains competing on price and smaller, boutique players competing by providing something quite different.

Take music, dominated by online retailers (and online product) with the only chain of note that remains (HMV) in the midst of a desperate struggle. Yet in an old brewery off Brick Lane in London, Rough Trade East appears to be thriving, despite prices that would make anyone with an Amazon-equipped smartphone wince. In part, this is because it is a "destination" retailer, complete with coffee shop and friendly, knowledgeable staff who are enthusiastic about what they sell. In part it is because it is able to strike deals with small record labels to allow it to sell the releases of hot underground artists before they go on general release. Then there is its innovative "album club". Whatever, it works.

There are also, it should be said, bookshops around that have followed a similar model, against a similar trading backdrop. If other, equally innovative retailers follow in their wake, perhaps there could be afuture for the high street after all.

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