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National Retail Rescue - A Tonic for Our High Streets?

08/08/2013 21:46 BST | Updated 08/08/2013 21:46 BST

Every time a retailer keels over, you wonder momentarily when you last shopped there. And often you can't remember even going into one of their stores, never mind buying something.

Many people think that the internet killed the high street, that what we buy and how we buy it has changed forever, rendering physical shops irrrelevant. We don't need DVDs, CDs and cameras when we can reach into our pockets and pull out our phones. Why buy a fridge freezer from the shopping centre on the edge of town when it's fifty pounds cheaper ordered from a laptop in your own living room? But it wasn't just the internet that killed the high street - the decline was caused by a range of factors, some of them caused by the world of online retail, others resulting from deferring long-term problems which have been evident for many years.

With the news that Nicole Farhi, Modelzone, Internacionale and Dwell have joined the growing list of retailers to fall victim to the turbulence affecting Britain's high streets, now is the time to ask fundamental questions about how to revive the sector's fortunes.

The High Street's long decline accelerated when Amazon opened its electronic doors. It might have had lower costs and lower taxes but Amazon also had the one thing our shops lacked: an online presence which set it apart and helped create a separate independent body of sellers operating from an Amazon platform. It offered convenience and choice, without compromising on quality.

On the high street when retailers struggle, so does quality. Suppliers become wary. Costs must be lowered and profits found. Choice narrows. It is not a coincidence that one of the signs of a failing retailer is the pile 'em high sell 'em cheap once in a lifetime sale. And it doesn't matter what they sell, as long as they sell something.

It might be a pop-up life-size One Direction cardboard cut-out or a giant tub of popcorn so big it could double as a quarry. Or a light that looks like a balloon dog with its head trapped in a lampshade. We can all think of examples of the bric-a-brac of bits and bobs that made the High Street less attractive to the average consumer, and signalled the demise of 'bricks and mortar' stores.

When choice dwindles and profits plummet, adaptability has to assume centre stage for physical stores. They need to work out what customers want, and give it to them, fast. This piles on the pressure at a time when it's all too apparent exactly how vulnerable the nation's high street shopfronts have become.

But it's not just retailers that must adapt, it's the government too.

Sir Philip Green in a recent statement said that one of Arcadia's stores has seen its annual rent fall from £500,000 to £125,000 over a five year period while the yearly business rates it pays to the government remain at £227,000 - more than the rent itself. Many retailers are demanding a tangible acknowledgement from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) that the balance between raising revenues and offering a helping hand to retailers has fundamentally altered post-2008. Until BIS take decisive positive action, retailers will continue to buckle under the double weight of pressure caused by the changing nature of the market along with vast business rates demanded by government.

It's essential that the retail sector continues to search for innovative solutions to this crisis, however elusive these may be. But more is needed. A national plan that focusses on transforming central government's goodwill into financial benefits could focus minds, and demonstrate that all concerned are serious about reviving ailing high streets. The National Infrastructure Plan is being used to promote Whitehall's dedication to dealing with the projects logjam, so why not extend the same nationally-focussed thinking to the retail sector? With deep-seated problems that filter down into towns and cities across the country, there is a real need and a real opportunity to rebalance retail and help it combine the best of online with the best of bricks and mortar.