Why chicken shops might soon be all that’s left of the great British high street

Services like Deliveroo, Just Eat and Uber Eats might be stifling footfall into physical shops, but at least demand is still there – unlike estate agents and betting shops

Josie Cox
Wednesday 02 August 2017 15:54 BST
There are now more than 56,600 takeaway shops across the country, up around 8 per cent since 2014
There are now more than 56,600 takeaway shops across the country, up around 8 per cent since 2014 (Flickr/S Martin)

Here’s one to file under “questions you didn’t think you’d get asked today”: Will 3-D printers ever manage to produce junk food that’s as effective at curbing those 11pm-on-a-Friday-night cravings as the greasy goodness you pick up at your local KFC?

Take my advice and don’t waste any energy speculating. Just hold on for a few decades and you might be forced to find out first hand.

I’ve only lived in the UK for about a decade, but even in that time, I’ve witnessed the face of the Great British High Street transforming radically. This week, a slew of bleak company earnings reports have cast a fresh and unflattering light on the direction of retail and trends in consumer behaviour, reiterating an inconvenient yet unavoidable truth: we’re inherently lazy, increasingly tech-reliant and – as a bitter result – the high street may well be living on borrowed time.

Bear with me – I promise I’ll get to the fried chicken– but first consider estate agents.

In a perhaps heartening headline for the recently gazumped still looking to vent their fury, we learned this week that nearly a fifth of the country’s estate agents are at risk of going bust. A report published by accountancy firm Moore Stephens claimed that 4,928 of our 25,560 estate agents are already showing signs of financial insolvency. Countrywide, the largest of the bunch, recently announced that pre-tax profit for the first half of 2017 had plummeted to £447,000 from £24.3m during the same period in 2016. Foxtons – the company many particularly love to hate—was forced to stomach a 64 per cent slump in pre-tax profit for the first half.

The majority of us are house-hunting from the comfort of our own homes with the help of our phones and laptops. And that’s assuming we can even afford to dream of buying our own pad at all. Falling real wages and inflated prices have transformed us into a generation of serial renters. So with the fate of estate agents seemingly established, let’s shuffle along to the retail banks.

Hundreds of branches have already been shuttered and despite Labour’s efforts to curb what MPs have called an “epidemic” of closures, the trend continues. Research conducted on behalf of the British Banking Association shows that customers used their mobile phones to check their current accounts 895 million times in 2015 alone, which is more than double the 427 million times they entered their branches. The trend has only hastened in the couple of years since that study was done. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve frequented a bank branch this year. You probably can too.

In fact, commercial property expert Savoy Stewart states in a recent report that across the UK, around 1,500 towns now have no bank at all, 840 have just one, and if we continue closing branches at the current rate, we’ll have no bricks-and-mortar banks left at all by 2045.

Time for the chicken yet? Not quite. But I will spare you the arcane detail on the next few points.

Physical betting shops are being whacked by a surge in online use. On Wednesday, William Hill reported a 14 per cent fall in operating profit from its retail outlets for the first six months of the year. Asos and Boohoo – shops I like to think of as “internet-native”— have seen their share prices surge in recent years, while those of their traditional peers – Marks & Spencer, Debenhams, John Lewis & co. – have flat-lined at best. The magic skill for fighting digitalisation, it seems, is being able to embrace it and adopt it, and that includes ditching costly inflexible real estate in favour of a nimble online presence.

Agent Provocateur, Jaeger, Jones The Bootmaker, Brantano, Ben Sherman, American Apparel, Banana Republic and Austin Reed, are just some of the better known names that have failed or gone into administration in the UK in the last couple of years. They bolster the membership of a sizeable club already counting Phones4U, Jane Norman, Blockbuster, HMV, Jessops, Comet, Peacocks and of course BHS amongst its members.

Figures from market intelligence specialist Local Data Company show closures of retail and leisure units have easily outstripped new openings over the last five years, especially in town centres and for standalone units. Banks, convenience stores, fashion stores and pubs have been particularly hard hit. The Campaign for Real Ale last year said that UK pubs were closing at a rate of 27 a week, hamstrung as well by business rates.

So where’s left for us to bargain hunt and browse – in the non-cyber sense of the word?

Well figures indicate that the champions in terms of bucking the trend have been tobacconists, barbers, beauty salons, cafés and take-away food outlets.

We’ve yet to trust a domestic robot to cut our hair, wax our legs or paint our nails, so off to the high street we still trudge. Tobacconists stock mostly impulse buys – chocolate bars and other confectionary – as well as cigarettes. Even we’re not quite stoic enough to order those online just yet. But if a recent crackdown on smoking is anything to go by then those retailers might soon be forced to shutter too.

Which leaves us with the take-away joint and that coveted fried chicken.

Yes, services like Deliveroo, Just Eat and Uber Eats might be stifling footfall into physical shops, but at least demand is still there. In fact, research has shown that there are now more than 56,600 takeaway shops across the country, up around 8 per cent since 2014.

So perhaps I was a little quick to assume even our midnight munchies might soon be satisfiable with the click of a button. Maybe our twin sins of vanity and greed will ensure that our high streets do have a future after all.

We might no longer leave the comfort of our living room to bank, bet, shop or drink, but pizza, chicken nuggets and the prospect of a great haircut always have been and always will be hard to resist.

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