Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Perfect knowledge

There's a whole internet-savvy generation that uses the High Street as an opportunity to examine and test goods before returning home to find the best deal in the internet. The poor retailer maintaining expensive frontage and high staffing is increasingly doing so for the benefit of the manufacturers of the goods he stocks. This doesn't apply to time-limited or quality-critical goods such as cheese, fresh meat or flowers as much as for white goods and electronics, but nevertheless the 'imperfect knowledge' that previously gave the High Street a living is fast disappearing. If local retailers can't compete on price, what else can give them competitive advantage?

For the vendors of cheese, fresh meat and flowers the killer is not price but parking. Rapacious councils desperate to rake in every penny are killing their own High Streets with sky high parking charges and the rationing of parking opportunities. Again, what can such retailers do?

This is a hard one for economic libertarians who would generally rather the State didn't intervene to distort markets, but in the case of High Street parking charges one could argue they already were. Also in the case of a planning system that favours the giant corporations (whatever their complaints). 

I'm not sure that Mary Portas has the right answers, but it's the start of a useful debate.  


Blue Eyes said...

If the state got out of the way the high street and town centres would be much healthier.

Anonymous said...

The French seem to have got this nailed down. Go into any pretty French village adorned with hanging baskets (its called "civic pride" by the way) and you can still see the boulangerie, patisserie and fabricant de chandelier. The French high street still has busy shops. Why? Because the white goods and household furnishers along with the major supermarkets (Carrefour, Leclerc etc) are all now out of town shopping. I don't know enough to say whether that was deliberate French policy, but I do know it works and that the French high street is alive and kicking.

Coney Island

Anonymous said...

I reckon that one should look to the charity shops, they seem to succeed in the high street.

My son has a one man garage facility, and he is under threat from a big charity outlet next door who want his space… They get tax breaks and volunteer workers, and he works (almost unpaid) and pays taxes to all sorts of bureaucrats/layabouts and may have to close.

If the same (or similar) breaks were given to individual/family retailers, they would have a similar advantage over the corporates.

Instead of a large supermarket company being able to open a metro/local (or whatever) store in every little parade, the small local business could operate in relative safety there.

I believe that the French also have planning regs that insist that if (say) a bakery stands on a particular spot and the proprieter retires/dies, that a bakery should be the only type of shop that can replace it… Which keeps the land value low, and the amenity value high… One in the eye for council planning thieves and their developer cohorts.

I have seen another concept in France (and Spain), which is the (super) market… A large covered building, housing small individual stallholders, who operate butchery/fishmonger/bakery/florist etc..

And parking is an issue, it should be free for up to say two hours, in local high streets and then free during the evening/night, to encourage theatre/concert visitors… Unlike Westminster's little trick which is about to destroy the west-end.

Whilst I am 100% anti-EU and central anti-democratic dictatorship, I do not believe that we have nothing to learn from other cultures/nations.

Weekend Yachtsman said...

Her thesis seems to be that town centre shopping is inconvenient, expensive, and awkward, plus it exposes everyone to the rapacious habits of councils, so we should all be forced to do it and give up the things that revealed preferences have shown we prefer.

Thanks, but no thanks.

Most of the commenters seem to agree with me btw.

Sean said...

No need to go home and check the internet price, I just get the smartphone out and watch the sales assistants face drop. Its cruel but its good to have the whip hand.

English Pensioner said...

When I moved to my present home, we had a free council car park in town. This was always full, with long term parking. The council reasonably introduces a 10p charge for half a day to discourage commuters, and it remained quite full but local shoppers could now park without problems. They have steadily increased this price, until it is now less than a quarter full, the two most popular shops, the butcher and the baker have gone because no-one is prepared to pay a £2 premium to buy a loaf, however tasty and fresh it is.
Council greed has ruined the place, nothing else.

John Page said...

Apparently the council doesn't charge in Witney -

In Potters Bar you get half an hour's free parking (down from an hour). It does make local shopping more practical.

Woodsy42 said...

I am sure the problem is simply one of difficulty and cost of access and parking. Councils have killed the high street with anti-visitor, anti-car charges and road schemes.
Charging for out of town won't help either, in the long run it will simply help the internet and those isolated business situated in rural areas.

formertory said...

There's an issue, though, with the use of car parks. Make them free, and they fill up with cars used by people to get to work - and they sit there all day, generating complaints about "no parking for shoppers".

Also, maintaining car parks and having people on the payroll to wander round to check them costs money; why should taxpayers generally subsidise a benefit received by retailers?

Perhaps making parking free for 3 hours (or so) would work - with a fine for going over. Even then, you need some means of policing it; installation / maintenance of ticket barriers, or creating an admin system of people checking on parking tickets issued and chasing for payment. Again, who pays?

Saying "the Council" doesn't work. That's you, and me. Because Council Tax is frozen and Business Rates effectively don't apply to many small businesses, it means the Poor Bloody Taxpayer subsidises parking all over the country.

Perhaps we need to consider the proposition that the era of the "High Street" is over, killed by poor planning, high costs, the rise of the hypermarket, with the coup de grace administered by the online retailer. And start taxing those damn Charity Shops, too. Charities they may be, but they need to pay their way if only to keep the numbers of the things manageable.

outsider said...

Agree with your point except that I cannot see how that would be a problem for economic libertarians. "Ownership" of streets by councils is a classic malign monopoly, restricting output in order to maximise revenue without suffering the cost. Quite different from funding a new road or bridge.
It is perfectly possible to have intelligent market-led charges, as other commenters have said. Preferably, if there must be parking charges, they should be controlled by a High Street Chamber of Commerce (including charity chops), perhaps in exchange for a guaranteed annual payment to the council.

Dahnunda said...

I was in Fremantle (Australlia) a while back and parking rates there are sky high. There is a minimum charge (AD4 if I remember correctly) for which you get 2 hours parking - even if you only want five minutes. Still, they do make it easy to extract your dosh by having the goodness to install credit card slots on each payment machine!

David C said...

There are two elephants in this room:
1) excessive rent expectations on high street properties, when it should be clear to everyone that the internet and out of town shopping centres must put serious downwards pressure on rents.
2) business rates, on which charities can get 80% relief, so it's no surprise they are taking over vacant shops.
Why start a business in the high street when you can do it online from a back bedroom?

Anonymous said...

We should look closer to home - the out of town super/hyper markets offer prices 'we' can't refuse. That, plus the convenience of shopping under one roof is all it takes to get 'us' (yes, YOU who are complaining) to leave the high street behind. There are many places to illustrate failings in the system but ignoring your own desire for cheap, easy shopping is shutting your mind to the problems.
If you feel THAT badly about out of town shopping then DON'T go and the high streets will recover.

Bessie said...

"If you feel THAT badly about out of town shopping then DON'T go and the high streets will recover."

The thing is, I don't feel THAT badly.

I do care about small town high streets with traditional family-run butchers and bakers. Maybe these could be saved by more sensible planning regulations and parking fees, and perhaps also by extending opening hours to suit modern working people's lives. If I lived in a small town, I would use those shops.

But I live just a mile away from the centre of a large town/small city. The interesting shops are raking in the tourist trade, and the rest are just chain stores. At weekends the town centre is so crowded that shopping is a horrible experience. Those shops don't need my custom. Thankfully the cheap, convenient, out-of-town supermarkets are within cycling distance. I don't feel guilty about using them.