The golden age of British retail is over. The industry now stands at the crossroads with competing models battling to define its next age.
Today the Fabian Society’s retail taskforce published its final report, warning that unless Government acts now, the industry could see one million job losses or a race to the bottom on working conditions.
Between the early 1980s and the financial crisis a decade ago, the UK retail industry went through a period of profound growth.
Big retailers rapidly expanded into new areas, labour productivity doubled, and the number of people employed in the industry grew from four to five million.
But this growth could not sustain the financial crisis.
The reduction of household spending and other cyclical responses to the recession were compounded by structural shifts in customer habits and the rise of online retail.
Since then, the increasing affordability of advanced technologies and a public appetite to tackle low pay in the industry have added to the list of challenges faced by retailers.
Many are walking a tightrope to survive, and there have already been a number of notable casualties.
In the future, shopping centres, high streets, their stores and the people they employ will increasingly have to compete with a new breed of retailing in which goods are bought online, processed by bots in warehouses and delivered by drones, buzzing like bluebottles across our skies.
A number of retailers have looked at these trends and failed to see any other future.
Too many of the bricks-and-mortar stores that remain have become service-light imitations of their former selves, with a shopping experience so devoid of joy that customers are starting to decide that they might as well stay at home.
A new way
But our report shows there is another way, where Government and retailers work together to co-create new thriving retail centres in local communities.
Our 10-point plan shows how government can drive up standards in the industry, tackle monopolies, level the playing field between online-led and store-led retail, and encourage new highly connected forms of retail to thrive.
The government should be proud of the UK retail industry, which provides millions of jobs and is a central pillar of the economy. But so far the industry has been entirely ignored by the prime minister’s modern industrial strategy.
The Fabian Society’s retail taskforce has come up with a plan to correct this omission and put retail at the heart of a renewed industrial strategy.
The future of communities, high streets and millions of livelihoods depends on it.