What to do with a problem like the high street

As Mary Portas seeks to address the ills of the UK high street, a visit by Retailinsider.com to the opening of the new-look Musicroom store on London’s Denmark Street highlighted just what shopping streets can be.

Things have always looked up on Denmark Street

This new outlet sells all things musical. Along with pretty much every other shop on this short road. It’s rich musical heritage makes it the go-to place for sheet music, guitars, keyboards, books, and other pieces of kit that I have no clue what purpose they serve.

The chairman of Musicroom Iain Davidson regaled those gathered at the store’s re-launch with tales of  how the road has links to Elton John, Jimi Hendrix, the Sex Pistols, the Rolling Stones, Bob Marley and numerous other artists who have either recorded, lived, filmed, shopped or simply passed through this thoroughfare.

But what he reckoned makes this store successful is not that it has this storied history but that it has proximity to similar shops. This gives people a reason to visit the street. It’s a real destination.

This makes it unlike so many other shopping streets around the country that have over the years become identikit. This wasn’t that big a deal when people were flush with money to waste and the internet was non-existent.

But this is no longer the case and far too many high streets have insufficient differentiation and can’t compete with the internet and some of the flashier shopping centres such as the Westfield pair in London.

Admittedly there is probably only a small amount of potential in the market for ultra-specialist thoroughfares like Denmark Street but where they do exist they are doing well. Take shirt mecca Jermyn Street and the home of bespoke tailoring Savile Row. All trading pretty well because they have a reason to exist.

We all know why people visit this street

What are also doing extremely well are streets with plenty of food outlets including restaurants, bars, cafes and take-aways. They are not quite booming but certainly performing very well.

Consider the results of a survey from Deloitte and BDRC Continental, which found consumers are going out to eat and drink 12% more often than six months ago. This means these gourmands/drinkers are going out to a local high street near them 19.7 times per month compared with the 17.5 times they made it out of the door each month in the previous half-year.

Such is the relative buoyancy in the restaurant sector that many operators are desperate for additional units on high streets around the UK. Starbucks announced last week that it is to open 300 more outlets in the UK over the next five years.

The problem for many food/drink-led companies is that they can’t get the sites, despite the fact that void rates on many streets are running at astronomical levels. Gaining a change of use from a retail premise to a food/drink outlet is well nigh impossible and is one factor that Portas should look at in her forthcoming report.

She is clearly not the only person looking at the high street conundrum. Some bright thinkers including former Asda CEO Andy Bond, Coffee Republic founder Bobby Hashemi and former chairman of Clarks Shoes Roger Peddar will be debating the issue of ‘how to navigate a high street in flux’ at a forthcoming event in London in January.

Whatever ideas or solutions they come up with I bet they’d enjoy a stroll down Denmark Street – even if they are not interested in music – and just maybe it would provide them with a little bit of inspiration for how individual shopping streets can be.