Fifteen years ago, online retail sales were more or less zero. Today they are worth almost £70 billion. Far from making room to accommodate the new channel, total floorspace has actually increased a little over the period. Meanwhile, online has progressively cannibalised that footage rather than create new demand. And this cycle continues – online continues to suck business out of stores and add capacity.
Not surprisingly, this has impacted trading economics although it has taken time to really hit. Now we are seeing the implications begin play out in the shape of distress. Admins, CVAs, job cuts etc have become the staples of retail news flow. And most of the narrative around these events and indeed, around the broader industry discourse, focuses on onerous costs and particularly, property. It is certainly true that rental levels are totally unsustainable. Even without going into a process of some kind, retailers are looking to negotiate rental reductions wherever they can.
While rising costs and property prices are undoubtedly pressing issues, the reality is they are symptoms of a more fundamental issue that goes to the very heart of retail today. Retail is simply not good enough at retailing aka selling. After generations of demand growth in a physically immature industry, we now have saturation in what is to all intents and purposes, a retail recession. Too many players with too much capacity. And this is increasingly exposing deficiencies in so many retail business models.
Reducing costs and rents is important but admins, CVAs, changes in ownership etc are all tinkering at the margins. In themselves, they will not make the business a better retailer. And this is an existential challenge. Unless the word restructure starts to be applied to the top line, not just the cost line, these sticking plasters have zero chance of curing the patient.
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