Commons speech on Retail and the High Street

Adjournment debate: 28.11.2013: I am very pleased, together with the Hon Member for Swindon North, to have secured this debate.

As co-chairs of the APPG on Retail, we understand that thriving town centres and high streets are the living face or our communities and are vital to their economic and social well being.

They influence how people see, experience and relate to their local areas.

They are, and always have been, places where we reaffirm our place in our communities by meeting and talking to each other.

The familiarity of the high street can give us a sense of belonging.

Retail is the building block of our high street. Over three million people – more than one in ten UK workers – are employed in retail.

In my Stockport constituency, retail is by far the largest private employer, providing more than a quarter of all jobs.

There are many important issues facing the High Street, such as employment, retail skills, business rates and rents, planning, car parking and town centre management, amongst others.

I do understand how crippling high business rates can be and I am very pleased that there is a separate and important debate taking place in the House today on that.

Another massive issue is the high number of empty shops scarring our town centres, with one in seven shops empty nationally and one in five in the North West.

But this does not herald the final demise of the high street. It indicates its transformation and the challenge that there is for both the private and public sector in reinvigorating that public space.

The biggest challenge is the impact of online shopping and developing mobile technology.

But I see this as an opportunity for the public and private sector to harness these revolutionary technological changes and bring together the “physical” with the “digital” to provide more exciting and unique community spaces.

Online sales are set to account for more than a quarter of all retail sales by 2020 and there is a predicted loss of 4,000 retail stores by 2015.

Latest figures from the British Retail Consortium shows that October online sales of non-food products have already reached a new record rate 18.3 per cent.

M- commerce grew by a staggering 300 per cent last year alone and this will rise further. Already 72 per cent of us own smartphones, according to research from Deloitte. And this will only increase.

Remember the old days – and we are not talking about long ago – there was only one way to shop: walk down the high street into the shop you want, spot the thing you want to purchase and then buy it and then carry it home.

Now with mobile phones we can go to a shopping centre, examine goods; scan bar codes and compare goods on line and read reviews and buy either instore or online.

And developing mobile technology means that in the future we will also receive real time tailor made messages from companies offering us myriad offers and discounts in nearby shops.

The thousands of empty shops up and down the country cannot all go back to being traditional shops. Because of the impact of mobile technology, future town centres can no longer be just about physical shopping but will be about socialising, entertainment services and culture. This was highlighted by both the Portas and Grimsey reports.

More stores are responding to new technology by bringing together online services with physical shops. Many businesses are equipping their stores or staff with ipads or installing “kiosks” to allow for easy in-store customer ordering.

A good example of bringing the physical and the digital together, is the introduction of Amazon’s collection lockers on the high street, which allow people to collect orders without waiting for a delivery.

EBay has set up a pilot system allowing click and collect orders to be picked up at Argos outlets.

John Lewis has already launched a service where consumers can collect their order from one of its 1,500 local Collect+ shops – starting their shopping journey online and finishing it in the town centre. This creates additional footfall.

Many shops already have free wi fii for tailored marketing which also allows shoppers to read detailed reviews and make price comparisons, which 33 per cent of smart phone users are already doing.

Apps or scannable QR and barcodes help stores to target shoppers with special deals and extra branded content on their mobile devices as they browse the shop. QR codes on shop windows can divert custom to a website outside normal opening hours, which is particularly useful for a small shop.

All of this mobile technology is already transforming our high street buts let’s imagine what the high street of the future might look like. In Spain technology is already being used that allows people to use phone identification to check into their local high street and a host of real-time events and offers then flash up on their individual smart phones alerting them to what is happening there and then.

It can even direct you to a free parking space. Westminster is already pioneering a new app for this.

In years to come, we will also see many stockless shops, which aim at selling their “brand” and where customers sit on sofas and view new collections, though high definition touchable holograms, which allow them to feel the texture of a fabric and have an item delivered home immediately.

Future technology will identify you from the ON-Street Face Recognition account that you can chose to opt in to and will alert your key shops and services that you are coming, so that they can prepare an offer in –store.

This means tailor made messages and offers for us as we walk down the high street.

Things that seemed ridiculously futuristic a short time ago will be here soon, like for example Google Glass – a head computer worn like glasses, which you speak to and will project images onto your glasses – a kind of interactive search engine.

It is very difficult to predict the actual effect on consumer’s behaviour of these technological changes but we must understand how transformational they are going to be.

I have already mentioned the Portas and Grimsey reviews . I think it is unfortunate that they are seen to be in conflict with each other because essentially they are both saying the same thing about innovation and partnerships.

Stockport is a Portas Pilot. Our pilot is based on regeneration of our Underbanks and market place and it is “creative industry-led”.

It has been, it is fair to say, a bumpy ride, but that is what pilots are about.

It has illustrated some of the difficulties faced when two very different cultures – public and private – try to work together.

However, the good news is that footfall is up in the market area and new shops are opening and a unique Stockport brand is beginning to emerge.

For me, the Stockport Portas Pilot, showed that we need a different kind of public/private partnership to support regeneration projects, based on small retailers and markets.

In such projects there should always be a business plan based on hard evidence and proper analysis of strengths and weaknesses at arriving at a unique high street offer for that particular town.

Because if public money is going to be spent in giving relief from business rates; or buying and letting property to preferred leaseholders or transferring public services to empty shops or converting empty shops to residential use – then we need to see value for that money, especially as resources become more scarse in the future.

I would like the minister to do what he can to spread the evidence from the Portas pilots and other innovative schemes across the country to provide local councils with information that will help them when they are developing future business plans for their high streets. We do not want to be constantly reinventing the wheel.

Turning to my own constituency – In Stockport I am conducting a shopping survey of people who live near the town centre and it is clear that a majority of them do use the town centre often for small shopping trips up to five times a week when they also go to the bank or post office and stop for a coffee. An important footfall for the town centre.

So converting empty shops to residential use and into shop fronts for public services does seem to be a good plan as it will encourage people to shop in the town centre. Indeed the presence of banks and post offices is also important in creating footfall, a point made by the Association of Convenience Stores.

The growth of online shopping has weakened many out of town large format stores and as a result there has been a renewed interest in the convenience format and a return to smaller and more frequent shopping trips, which could benefit towns like Stockport.

In our town we have many new independent shops and it is good to see them exploring ways of working together and of using the internet and social media such as “facebook “ and “twitter” to support their bricks and mortar shops.

I was talking to one Stockport business who already operates an online store through ASOS Market place, which is a part of the ASOS fashion retail site.

But across the country, independent retailers report that they are struggling to compete with major internet retailers as, on their own they lack the funds for large scale online marketing and websites to compete with Amazon and Ebay.

An interesting response to this is new websites such My High St supported by BIRA for independent retailers. Called Target 200 it is an innovative ecommerce network that gives independent shop keepers the chance to join together to sell their products on line and also gives towns a platform to showcase what is happening in their high street. Coupled with “click and collect” and an independent shops loyalty programme it enables shoppers to buy online whilst encouraging visits in person.

This type of innovation may be the way forward for Stockport in bringing together an online presence with its physical shops which will give additional income to independent retailers through on line sales in an affordable way and at the same time showcase its bigger retail shops, its markets, including specialist markets, together with its cultural and heritage attractions.

I believe that my town has a lot to offer and I also very strongly believe that the digital age and the new technology available offers Stockport and towns like it an opportunity to transform themselves into the exciting community spaces of the future.

I am really concerned that with all this discussion about the demise of the high street that the opportunities are being missed.

It is important that councils and businesses in Stockport and elsewhere join together to enter the digital age and use the exciting opportunities offered by mobile technology to transform our high streets both in the delivery of private goods and public services.

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