Multiple retailers often get the blame when independent stores go out of business. But they’re not the biggest threat to the existence of small specialist retailers.
I have an in-depth knowledge of London’s specialist jazz record shops.
Not because I have any interest in jazz, but because my father does. To be honest, interest really isn’t a strong enough word - obsession is closer to the mark.
Many hours of my childhood were spent in shops like Mole Jazz in King’s Cross, and Dobells and Ray’s in Covent Garden. None of them, as far as I know, are still going, although Ray’s lives on as a concession in Foyles.
The reason I mention this is that on a trip to Portobello Road with my father and brothers at the weekend, he wanted to stop in one of the few remaining specialists in London, a small store in a side street off the market. The shop was absolutely packed with browsers flicking through the vinyl.
Luckily we boys are old enough to go to the pub now while Dad shopped, but when he joined us laden down with bags, he looked heartbroken.
The shop, it turned out, was offering 25% off everything, and is closing down. The reason wasn’t competition from Tesco, Asda, or even HMV, but business rates. The owner, faced with a 50% increase next year, had decided to shut up shop. Many others will do the same when next year’s revaluation kicks in.
Business rates are one of the most insidious taxes going, and represent an awful lot of money for having your bins emptied.
If the government were to try to increase the burden on individual council tax payers, there would be uproar, but business rates are a tax which can be stealthily raised with no controversy. And they hit retailers disproportionately, as a well-located store is essential for any bricks and mortar retailer.
What I don’t get is that the retail and property industries are great at finding areas in which they disagree, but on the issue of rates, where there is a genuine commonality of interest, the industries struggle to speak with a united voice.
Keeping a sensible lid on the tax burden on retailers occupying property is going to be absolutely vital to retaining the health of UK high streets in the age of the internet - all of us need to do more to show the government the damage an ill-thought out revaluation could do.