Demanding consumers shun the traditional high street

GLENDA COOPER

The traditional high street shop has become the "symbol of a bygone era" to a whole generation of young consumers, who prefer to shop instead at superstores and out-of-town retail parks, according to Mintel, the market researchers.

In the next century, it warns, the high street's only regular customers will be the poor, including pensioners, those on benefits and the least mobile.

Although almost half of all shoppers say they visit the high street regularly and a further 25 per cent say they visit it occasionally, Mintel says that it is becoming a source of "top-up" shopping - such as the occasional pint of milk - for the most affluent and mobile shoppers.

These richer shoppers are motivated by convenience and choice, the report, Survival of the High Street, concludes. Their preference for out-of-town centres is because everything is under one roof (64 per cent), followed by ease of parking (58 per cent) and free parking (53 per cent).

Retail parks have been helped vastly by the rise in car ownership; it is projected by 1998 that there will be 25 million cars in the UK. Those least loyal to high street shops also show greatest enthusiasm for Sunday shopping.

The largest regional centres can even hit smaller superstores as well as high streets. The biggest ones are the MetroCentre (Gateshead), Meadowhall (Sheffield), Lakeside (Thurrock), Brent Cross (north London) and Merry Hill (Dudley, West Midlands).

But nearly half of all shoppers said they would shop in the high street if there were a better choice of shop. Free parking would entice 42 per cent and more big name shops would attract 34 per cent.

"Limited choice is the inherent weakness of small town centres and high streets and today's discerning shopper thrives on wide choice, something which retailers in the high street and smaller town centres are evidently not providing," said Paul Rickard, Mintel's head of research.

Mintel also dismisses government claims that it has saved the high street by halting expansion of out-of-town malls. It seems that the superstore mentality is now so firmly ingrained in us that government action is "too little, too late".

Planning controls were first relaxed in the early 1980s and rapid expansion by grocery and DIY retailers followed.

In July 1995, a consultation paper clarified the government's present thinking. It identified a "sequential approach" to planning, ensuring that preference was given to in-town rather than out-of-town developments.

"The changes in planning guidelines have come far too late to save the multitude of small businesses and specialist fresh food retailers whose businesses have suffered terminally at the hands of the multiples which operate over 900 grocery superstores," said Mr Rickard. He believes that for the high street to recover extensions on existing stores must be frozen along with new developments.

In 1995, multiple chains required an extra 17 million sq ft of new space of which 11 million sq ft was for retail parks based out of town. In comparison, between 1990 and 1994 the number of bakers fell by 32 per cent, grocers by 22 per cent and butchers by 10 per cent.

But while the high street butcher and baker are on their way out, the candlestick- maker might just survive. Mintel believes the high street can survive into the next century but in a different form. It will become increasingly dominated by doctors, solicitors, estate agents, restaurants and speciality shops.

Mr Rickard said: "We see the high street 2000 as being a lot smaller and containing fewer retail businesses than it does today. On the other hand, retail-based services, such as solicitors, will become an increasingly important focal point of visits to high streets."

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