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The growing class divide on the British high street

As global economic instability continues to grip society one of the noticeable changes we are seeing in Britain is a shift towards a two-tier high street society.  What I mean by that is a much more noticeable gap in the demographic of shoppers visiting different shopping areas and the gradual creation of retail centres filled with generic, mass-market brands versus more specialised shopping ‘destinations’ where the actual shopping ‘experience’ is more valued and as a result, the type of product on offer is generally higher in quality and higher in price.

If you take almost any county in the UK, you’ll find areas of wealth and high employment as well as areas of high unemployment and lower disposable income.  In some cases over the past 4 or 5 years these areas have actually begun polarise rather than blur and it’s the general lack of growth in the UK and Europe which is separating the classes more than ever.

It’s this difference between high and low earning areas which is creating a similar polarisation in our high street stores.  In Hampshire, West Sussex, Hertfordshire, Kent and Cheshire (some of the richest counties in the UK), traditional market towns and historic cities appear to be booming whilst areas with a more diverse population and generally lower employment rates are now relying on charity shops, pound stores and Lidl type supermarkets to to fill up the vacant retail spaces.

You could say this has always been the case on the British high street and there will always be areas that have, and areas that have not.  But this divide has always been blurred somewhat by the presence of mid-range brands that have traditionally formed the backbone of British retail. It’s these retailers (NEXT, Marks & Spencer, BHS, Debenhams, John Lewis, etc) that have managed to ride the stormy seas of post-recession Britain by branching out to  retail parks with larger floor spaces and easy access to back room warehouse space. Unfortunately for the high street this has left hundreds of vacant units already adjacent to other spaces left bare by the demise of companies like Woolworths, GAME and HMV (see who’s gone bust).

In the wealthier areas these vacant units are now being snapped up by a range of relative newcomers, all with big ambitions and in some cases equally big financial backing.  They’re placing their bets on cathedral cities like Winchester and Salisbury and are embracing the historic nature of these places by creating boutique style stores with quality fitments, superb lighting schemes and sometimes even bespoke P.O.S material (i.e.  advertising graphics that are non-standard to the general brand and are often location specific).

Dorothy Perkins now empty store in Chichester

Dorothy Perkins now empty store in Chichester

In Chichester, Dorothy Perkins have closed their store after years of neglect whilst brands like Gerry Weber, and Mint Velvet have opened fresh and exciting spaces that embrace the wealthy populace within the city and its surrounding villages.

Gerry Weber store Chichester with company share price showing improvement

Gerry Weber store Chichester with company share price showing improvement over the past 6 months.

Relative newcomer Mint Velvet have a great store in Chichester and are also expanding in other wealthy towns like Guildford

Relative newcomer Mint Velvet have a great store in Chichester and are also expanding into other wealthy towns like Guildford.

Kuoni Travel agents and Thorntons Chocolates in Chichester

Kuoni Travel agents and Thorntons Chocolates in Chichester

Even the travel agents of Chichester are upmarket in comparison to other towns in the wider area… there are no £99 trips to Tenerife in these windows, only luxury cruises and bespoke 5 star hotels available from a very boutique looking Kuoni store flanked by an equally tempting Thorntons and a Hotel Chocolat a few shops down.

Swarovski store in Chichester

The presence of shops like Swarovski show that shoppers are looking for diversity in these new ‘middle class’ high streets.

The new faces in this ‘middle class’ retail club includes more than just clothing retailers and posh chocolatiers.  High end gift ware company Swarovski, is reaching out to non-Londoners with new stores around the country. Like many  ‘luxury’ retailers they’ve seen superb figures over the past few years (up from €2.25bn globally in 2009 to €2.87bn in 2011)

Even the mid-market fashion retailers that have resisted the temptation to move out-of-town to places like Gun Wharf Quays have invested in market towns. Stores like LK Bennett and Oasis have invested heavily in their stores which often occupy key units at the heart of these retail ‘leisure centres’.  For these are indeed areas for the high street day tripper to partake in the leisurely pursuit of mooching.

LK Bennett and Oasis keep up with the new kids on the block by investing heavily in their store fronts and internal fixtures.

LK Bennett and Oasis keep up with the new kids on the block by investing heavily in their store fronts and internal fixtures.

The latest company to realise the potential of this growing market is the department store Liberty & Co. They recently announced plans to launch a series of pop-up stores around the capital and in richer towns & cities. These temporary stores will bring the Liberty brand to areas where people can afford to buy their quality items, but don’t want to travel in to London.

Bookmark this site now and come back in a few weeks time for an exclusive guest blog post from Liberty’s head of menswear buying. He’ll be giving his top tips and fashion predictions for the coming seasons.

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4 comments on “The growing class divide on the British high street

  1. sparkstoneweb
    June 29, 2012

    looks like my ideas on this subject aren’t to different from a recent retail think tank’s findings – http://bit.ly/QA3aF8

    However, I would strongly disagree with their decision that independent stores can harm towns and cities. I think that by giving consumers a greater choice it will actually promote growth.

    What we really need though, is for property landlords to reduce their extortionate rates so that independent retailers can afford to set up in the first place.

  2. Pingback: Is this the best looking shop in Britain? – vote now! « Sparkstone -Multichannel retail software

  3. Pingback: Is this the best looking shop in Britain? – vote now!

  4. Martyn Barmby
    January 17, 2013

    Really interesting blog – it would be good to think of the High regenerating itself as a more interesting, imaginative shopping experience but it would be a shame that this is only true of high end shops. Look forward to the next blog.

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This entry was posted on June 12, 2012 by in High street retail, Retail news and tagged .

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