The Struggle of the Welsh High Street: Empty Shops on the Rise
1st September 2023
Recent data from the Welsh Retail Consortium (WRC) reveals a concerning trend for Wales, with over one in six shops standing vacant, making it the country with the highest number of empty stores in the UK. This development has raised significant concerns about the economic impact and vitality of Welsh town centres. But why is this happening? We delve into the reasons behind this surge in empty shops and explore potential strategies to revive these once-thriving high streets.
The WRC notes that Welsh retailers are grappling with various cost challenges, stemming from factors like business rates, energy prices, and local issues such as antisocial behavior which affects footfall. These difficulties have contributed to the rise in empty shops from 16.5% to 17.0% in Q2 2023.
Newport in South Wales stands out as a city heavily affected by this issue. Research by the Centre for Cities in 2021 identified Newport as having the highest number of vacant units in the UK. The city has long been the poorer little sibling to the more prestigious Cardiff, however a lack of shops and services heightens the necessity of traveling out of town for shopping needs.
Newport City Council acknowledges significant projects have taken place over many recent years, including the transformation of Newport Market and Market Arcade, aiming to combat the issue of vacant shops. However as the city council doesn't own these properties, their abilty to influence is limited. A considerable number of vacant units are under the ownership of absent or disengaged landlords. Efforts are underway to hold them accountable for maintaining and revitalising these spaces.
The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the shift towards online shopping, with digital sales accounting for 27% of total retail sales at the start of 2023, up from under 3% in 2006. This shift has hit traditional chain retailers hard, exemplified by the recent struggles of other former big names of the high street. Homeware chain Wilko, who recently went into administration, with thousands of jobs at risk, are the latest victim. The Wilko in Newport will lead to one more shop vacancy.
Despite these challenges, there are bright spots in Wales. For example, the town of Treorchy, won the UK High Street of the Year Award in 2020. The success of Treorchy's high street is attributed to a focus on independent businesses and a sense of community unity. This town of only 6,000 people, boasts a website, arts festival and “hop, shop and save” scheme which allows trades to use advertising space on local buses for in-store discounts.
The Welsh government's retail action plan, launched in May, seeks to address this issue by emphasising the importance of increasing foot traffic and fostering urban residential communities. The plan aims to rejuvenate the retail sector, acknowledging its vital role in sustaining town and city centers as well as rural communities.
The surge in empty shops on Welsh high streets signals a critical juncture for the retail sector. By addressing the multifaceted challenges faced by retailers and implementing strategies to adapt to changing consumer behavior, Wales has the potential to breathe new life into its town centers, ensuring their continued vibrancy and economic vitality.