JOE GILL: Big ideas needed to freshen upour high streets

In cities and towns outside capitals the opportunity exists to create environments that turn old shops into internet-ready retail outlets, writes Joe Gill.

During the last week, it was reported that a key UK retailer, House of Fraser, was shutting a large number of stores.

Aside from struggling with a significant amount of debt, this shopping company is also bearing the brunt of a structural change in the way we all are purchasing items. That shift has deep consequences for urban planners as they design towns and cities for the future.

With rapid advances in mobile phone and tablet technology, and fast growing internet-based retail companies, the way in which we all consume is quickly changing. Amazon, alone, has dramatically broadened the range of goods it sells online and uses scale, coupled with technology, to offer consumers choice at low prices.

Moreover, its distribution model is delivering those goods to your home or office in jig time, allowing consumers the option and time to do things other than visit physical shops. This mega trend is, if anything, going to accelerate further, as the cost of doing business online continues to fall.

At the pointy end of that process is the physical shop with its fixed costs, rates and limited exposure to customers. Its ability to compete in future will be severely challenged, unless it can construct a business model that leverages the internet too.

Food and drink consumption is following a similar pattern. Businesses like Just Eat are offering consumers multiple options for food which can be delivered quickly and cheaply to home addresses.

This model may provide some comfort for traditional shops, as Just Eat gives an individual restaurant an ability to supply consumers at home without having to build a very large physical space for consumers.

All of this poses significant challenges for urban planners. If traditional shops are on the wane, how will rates, which pay for services, be generated? If consumers no longer want to travel into towns and cities to shop, how will the life of those centres be sustained?

I suspect radical thinking is required to resolve this conundrum.

On the one hand, shopping as we know it is in decline. On the other hand, I am constantly hearing complaints about the cost of living in Dublin, a phenomenon that exists in other big cities across Europe and US too.

It is also patently clear that cities like Dublin are struggling to contain the pressures of congestion posed by solid economic growth, more employment and rising numbers of families.

In cities and towns outside capitals the opportunity exists to create environments that turn old shops into internet-ready retail outlets. Those are stores that offer products which sell primarily on the web but are displayed literally in shopfronts.

Above ground levels in plenty of towns are floors that used to be kept for storage for a shop below. Those could be transformed into apartments that can draw citizens back into an urban setting. If I compare the stress of commuting in Dublin with the thought of a quick walk from home to work in a city like Waterford, it is not hard to contemplate a better form of living.

As always, this big idea of turning the supposed demise of regional Ireland on its head and making it a great opportunity for growth is met with rolling eyes among some of my colleagues.

They point to data showing huge migration to large cities worldwide. I disagree.

Joe Gill is director of corporate broking with Goodbody Stockbrokers. His views are personal.


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