The number of shops lying empty soared by more than 7,500 last year, according to new data that lays bare the crisis on the high street.
A rapid rise in the number of barbers, beauty salons, vaping stores, cafes and restaurants or bars was offset by the closure of hundreds of banks, pubs, estate agents and fashion shops, analysis of the UK’s top 650 shopping locations has revealed.
The number of new shops, restaurants, pubs and other retail openings slipped by 4.4% to 43,278. Closures increased slightly to 50,828 resulting in a 37% rise in net closures compared with 2018, the biggest in at least five years, according to the Local Data Company (LDC).
Multiple chains were hardest hit, as Poundworld, Maplin, Toys R Us and Multiyork went into administration. New Look, Carpetright and Mothercare, meanwhile, were forced to seek legal agreements with their landlords to shut stores and slash their rent bills.
High-profile restaurant groups including Gourmet Burger Kitchen and rival burger chain Byron as well as Jamie’s Italian, Carluccio’s and the Prezzo Group have also been forced to close large numbers of outlets as a result of rising costs, slowing spending and a rapid change in consumer habits.
There has been no let-up in 2019, with Debenhams and Topshop boss Philip Green’s Arcadia empire expected to seek approval from landlords in the coming weeks to close dozens of stores. Marks & Spencer is also in the process of closing 100 shops by 2022.
Lucy Stainton, the head of retail and strategic partnerships at LDC, said: “2018 was another unprecedented year of change as the sustained challenges faced by many legacy brands collided with an advent of new concepts – these constantly shifting sands making conditions tougher than ever for most operators.”
She said retailers had been hit by a combination of rising operating costs, Brexit uncertainty and increased rents and business rates.
The industry has also been hit by the switch to online shopping and a major shift in how consumers spend their leisure time – towards holidays and experiences or dining and drinking at home rather than visiting shopping centres.
Earlier this week, Tesco, the UK’s biggest retailer, urged the government to impose a 2% online sales tax to help pay for a cut in business rates for shops, saying the system disadvantaged those with physical retail space against online rivals and was damaging communities across the UK.
Despite several parliamentary inquiries, the government has so far taken only limited action.
In October, the chancellor, Philip Hammond, offered business rates relief for small retailers and a planning consultation that could make it easier for some of the UK’s empty shops to be converted into homes or other uses. The government has also set up a £675m “future high streets” fund under which councils could bid for up to £25m towards regeneration projects.
But despite the difficulties some businesses continue to thrive. Aldi was the fastest growing business in terms of new stores last year, followed by Greggs and Card Factory. Mike Ashley, the boss of Sports Direct, increased his store empire to 1,154 outlets last year from 651 in 2015 after he bought House of Fraser and Evans out of administration.
Ashley, who recently lost out on an attempt to buy Debenhams and had also considered buying LK Bennett and Patisserie Valerie, has a growing hold over some retail centres such as the Forum shopping park in Stevenage. One in three units in the park are occupied by a retailer that Sports Direct has a stake in, according to LDC.
Despite concerns about the high street, shopping centres were hardest hit last year, with a 2.2% fall in the number of outlets, compared with a 1.4% drop at traditional shopping streets.
LDC said landlords were already looking at strategies to make better use of space such as redeveloping it as homes or warehouses or bringing in leisure services such as gyms.
The number of vacant units that were demolished, split into smaller outlets or converted to another use jumped to 3,577, up from 2,706 in 2017.
Stainton said: “The significant increase in structural redevelopment of retail space across 2018 indicates that landlords, place managers and councils are starting to take action to critically review how much retail stock is in the market and how much is actually required. Over the coming months, we expect this trend to increase, and with it will come a redefinition of not just our high streets, but shopping centres and retail parks too.”