Billy from the NTI newsroom has an idea for a new app. He and his cousin Slash plan information software that tells shoppers-to-be what shops have closed since they had their morning shower, and whether it is even worth going out in the first place. The idea is pandemic driven, but the fact is that shop vacancy rates have been increasing for three years. Supporters of the online revolution will be reaching for their hammers to apply another nail to the coffin of high street retail and raising their eyebrows in "told you so" expressions. It is true that Amazon have reported record-breaking second consecutive monthly sales of more than $100 billion, but overall online sales were down in March as consumers showed a willingness to go out in their cars to the shops again.
The question is; what damage has already be done to the average retail park and shopping centre? A report by the British Retail Consortium says that shopping centres have been hit hardest, with vacancies increasing from 17.1 per cent to 18.4 per cent during the first quarter of 2021. Vacancies on the high street jumped from 13.7 per cent to 14.1 per cent. Retail park vacancies increased slightly, from 10 per cent to 10.6 per cent during the period.
The industry body said that there were 5,000 fewer stores since the start of the pandemic, meaning that one in seven shops is empty. The decline is being led by the northeast of England, where 19.3 per cent of outlets are empty. This is followed by Wales at 19.1 per cent and the northwest at 17.7 per cent. There is nothing that will kill a business as much as not being open, not selling anything and having no money to stay alive. However, just as evolution has done away with big fat flightless birds who cannot run as fast as hungry predators and fainting goats, whose first line of defence is to collapse before their pursuers and present themselves on a sliver platter, bad retail that no-one wants will close down and good retail that people like to visit will survive.
Bad retail has been a busted flush for a long time, it just took a pandemic to raise its position in the headlines. Shoppers have been returning to stores, according to Springboard, the retail data provider, which said that customer visits had jumped from 44 per cent to 75 per cent in the week ended April 17. The will is there, money is in shoppers' accounts, now they just need decent shops to walk around which offer more imagination than a flat screen presentation of stuff that never looks the same when it arrives at your house in a brown box.
McDonald's are doing their bit to lure us out of our shells; growth at the Golden Arches has returned to pre-pandemic levels on the back of strong trading in Britain and robust demand for chicken sandwiches in America. (These are 'chicken sandwiches' the size of trailers, you understand.) The chain’s international sales stabilised in the latest quarter, up 0.6 per cent after a 6.9 per cent fall in the same period last year. That helped total revenues to rise 9 per cent to $5.12 billion. Net income jumped 39 per cent to $1.54 billion.
Everyone's numbers pale into insignificance to those of Apple, a business that has the 'great shops / brilliant online presence' combo taped. Sales of iPhones and their bigger Mac cousins to China nearly doubled, leading to overall revenues for the first three months of this year of £64.2billion, more than 50 per cent up compared to 2020. Profit was £20 billion, give or take a quid, up from £9.2 billion for the same period last year.