An audience with Mary Queen of Shops…

Mary Portas, one of the nation’s retail success stories, was in Parliament today to discuss the future of the high street with MPs.  Mary has been asked by the Coalition Government to report on the state of British retail and recommend measures to rejuvenate the high street and town centres.

Mary was in a commitee room at the House of Commons today to sound out MPs on some themes and hear about constituency experiences.  She thinks what’s needed is a combination of “vision, entreprenuership and planning.”  I guess this means that towns and cities need to decide what sort of shopping experience they want, businesses need to invest and innovate and the regulatory regime needs to be supportive.

MPs raised many issues and had lots of great ideas.  The growth of charity shops may have saved some high streets but what number is too many?  Do they have an unfair advantage over businesses that employ people?  A charity clothes shop gets rate relief and is operated mainly by volunteers.  Should a local council have a cap on the number of charity shops, cafes or estate agents in a particular area?

I of course have a huge range of shops in my Bristol West constituency.  As well as Broadmead and Cabot Circus there’s also the distinct independent shops and boutiques in Clifton Village, Park Street, Whiteladies Road, Cotham Hill, Gloucester Road, Stokes Croft, Stapleton Road and Church Road.  Mary was very familiar with Gloucester Road, England’s longest high street of shops.

I raised the issue of the mix of shops on high streets.  If something is missing, should the council be able to offer rate relief to attract a particular retailer?  For instance, Gloucester Road and Whiteladies Road have both lost their bookshops.  Mary liked this idea but also said shops could be more mixed in their offer.  Some Waterstone’s shops have a cafe (eg Bath) so why shouldn’t cafes sell books…she suggested a “Starbooks” brand.  I’m not sure whether that would be popular on Gloucester Rd! 

The  biggest threat to books, music and DVD retailing has been Amazon and other internet sellers.  When I visit the Royal Mail delivery offices each Christmas I am struck by the vast number of Amazon parcels.  Maybe Amazon will one day have to set up a high street presence to make it easier for people to collect their orders…

Mary’s report will come out this side of Christmas and I hope it will be brimming with suggestions for action.

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