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Bemoaning the demise of the British high street has become a popular pastime. According to figures published by the British Association of Independent Retailers (BIRA), however, while national chains saw a fall last year across the UK’s top  500 town centres, traditional independent retailers opened more shops than were closed.

While there has been a net rise in the number of independent retailers, there is still an element of churn in the sector. This means we are still seeing some empty units but none the less there is a discernible change in the make-up of the UK’s high streets.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, many of the growth sectors mirror modern technological developments, with mobile phone shops and e-cigarette shops opening thick and fast. Other key growth sectors include restaurants, cafes, hair and beauty salons, bookmakers, tattoo parlours, financial services and estate agents. Despite pressure from big-name chains, there is also continued growth in convenience retailers, with butchers, bakers and specialist grocery stores all getting a piece of the action.

At the other end of the scale, figures indicate that the news agency, floristry, footwear and women’s clothing sectors are all in decline as buyers look increasingly to the internet for digital news services, online fashion purchases and direct-to-door deliveries.

Geographically, of the top 500 town centres Glastonbury tops the table with an impressive 85.6% of its stores owned by independent retailers, setting an ambitious precedent for many a UK high street.

So what’s driving the growth in independent retail?

This may be partly a throwback to the recent recession, when redundancies and a sluggish job market encouraged more people to embrace their entrepreneurial spirit and set up on their own.

Online developments have brought with them opportunities as well as threats, with those who get the balance right benefitting from both a high street presence and an effective online promotional and distribution network.

When it comes to food, there is an increasing appetite for supporting local producers, which is reflected by the surge in farm shops, delis and specialist grocery stores.

It’s not all a piece of cake

Cooking up a healthy balance on our high streets is no piece of cake, however. At the other end of the scale to thriving Glastonbury comes Salford, where independent retailers account for just 18.1%, closely followed by Bracknell, Basildon, Milton Keynes and Welwyn Garden City. Overall, the East, South East and South West all saw a net reduction in the number of independents last year. Greater London has been hit particularly hard by rising rents and the prospect of ever-greater rates bills, an issue that affects independent retailers in every sector, north, south, east and west. It is hoped that the forthcoming general election may usher in some financial breathing space for the independent retail community, allowing our celebrated entrepreneurs to continue to focus on what they do best – creating a healthy, happy and profitable retail environment.

As one independent retailer describes it, “…people love walking into a store and having that personal connection and service aspect of shopping, looking at and touching products in a real way. Virtual is good, real is better”. We couldn’t have put it better ourselves.



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