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TOWN CENTRES MUST CHANGE TO SURVIVE

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Reports of the death of the high street are exaggerated, but the town centre must change in order to survive, accor...
Reports of the death of the high street are exaggerated, but the town centre must change in order to survive, according to a feature in The Observer (Business, p4). With wafer-thin margins and rising shop rents, and the demise of the mid-range clothing market forcing C&A out of the UK, the closure of the Principles for Men chain and the sale of BHS for a knock-downprice, paints a gloomy picture for retailers.

But anyone who thinks we are seeing the demise of the high street is wide of the mark, says the article. What is happening is polarisation in every facet of the industry. Top multiples are interested in only about 300 high streets and shopping malls - 80% of the UK's retail spend is concentrated in 20% of all available space.

To display wider product ranges, major chains are demanding larger units they cannot get in the smaller high streets. Suburban towns could provide larger units were it not for the fragmented

ownership of high streets shop units. Only when high streets are owned by a single entity can shops be 'knocked through' to provide the larger units.

So if there is a dash for malls and major city and town centres, where does that leave the 1,200 high streets in this country which don't figure in the multiples' 'grand scheme'? According to retail consultant Clive Vaughan, of Retail Intelligence, the excluded must either become centres of convenience or encourage leisure uses with restaurants, cafes and gyms. 'The ones that are left clearly need to find a role. Some places will just feature convenience shops, a food store, a chemist, a newsagent and little else'.

Dorking in Surrey is one town that has thrived in its secondary role. Although it has a relatively wealthy commuter population and is surrounded by attractive countryside, the town for the past

few years has seen an exodus of major chains. facing town centre oblivion, Dorking has reinvented itself as a focus for independent traders combined with top class restaurants.

'Dorking realised three or four years ago that retail polarisation was happening', said town manager Simon Matthews. 'What we did was to flip the whole thing around. We have a traditional linear high street, with 300 small units. Most majors wanted big units. We decided to

go for the independents, and now 80% of our shops are run by them. We've got wine merchants and thriving restaurants here'.

Mr Matthews concedes that his job would be tougher if he had to manage a less prosperous town, but maintains it is not impossible to revive town centre high streets. 'You have to create a brand and play up all your advantages', he said.

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