HMV, a chaotic festive period for Marks & Spencer (Other OTC: MAKSY - news) and the horsemeat scandal. While the FTSE 100 (FTSE: ^FTSE - news) may have surged in January, the mood in the retail industry has been far more subdued.
The demise of three high-profile retailers Jessops and Blockbuster, alongside HMV has inevitably prompted talk of the demise of the British high street. More than 10,300 jobs and almost 1,000 stores are at risk from the three businesses falling into administration.
However, amid bemoaning of the rise of the internet, the dominance of supermarkets, and the pressure on consumer spending, the last month has also provided clear evidence that the high street is already reinventing itself.
Here, for example, are three numbers from January that tell a different story to the job losses and store closures: 9pc is the rise in like-for-like sales over the Christmas period for Primark, a retailer that has no online presence; 75pc is the proportion of Argos’s online sales that are now collected by customers in its high street shops; and 400 is the number of new coffee shops that Lavazza wants to open in the UK.
To borrow from Mark Twain, reports of the death of the high street have been greatly exaggerated.
For a start, more than half of the shops involved in the recent retail administrations are not even on the high street. According to the Local Data Company, the worst affected locations have been Heathrow Airport and Ealing Broadway (SES: E1:B69.SI - news) shopping centre in west London.
Also, while of course the demise of Jessops, HMV and Blockbuster is to be regretted, these retailers have long faced specific financial and structural problems.
By contrast, other retailers have been adapting and investing to meet the demands of the modern consumer.
The changes that these businesses have made suggest that, ironically, the entity seen as the biggest enemy of the high street could also turn out to be its saviour. British consumers have taken to the internet quicker than any other country in the world. According to the British Retail Consortium, around 15pc of retail sales came from the internet in December and the rise of tablet computers and smartphones is likely to drive further growth.
However, Christmas sales data also show that the fastest-growing segment of online retailing is click-and-collect.
On paper, click-and-collect is a simple concept it allows customers to collect products they have ordered on the internet from the high street rather than be delivered to their home. But it has proved remarkably popular with consumers, who have welcomed the certainty of knowing they can collect their product rather than waiting for it to be delivered.
For retailers, click-and-collect is also cheaper than paying for products to be delivered, and it comes with the added benefit of customers potentially buying other goods when they collect their purchase.
Argos has banked its future on click-and-collect. Rather than seeing its 750 stores as a hindrance in its battle with Amazon, the retailer has concluded that its high street locations are an asset. So, over the next five years, Argos will spend £300m on modernising its traditional order, pay and collect queuing systems so it becomes quicker to collect products. During the same period, it plans to close just 50 stores as leases expire.
John Lewis is another advocate of “multichannel” retailing and bringing the internet and high street closer together. Andy Street, the managing director, says click-and-collect was a key reason behind a 44pc year-on-year rise in online sales in December.
However, the success of John Lewis is also evidence that retailers can still grow sales on the high street. Like-for-like sales at its stores are up 13pc compared with last year and Mr Street wants to expand the number of John Lewis shops from 39 to 60 within five years.
Fashion retailers, in general, enjoyed a robust Christmas on the high street. The discount fashion chain Primark reported a 25pc increase in sales in the 16 weeks to January 5, Debenhams (Other OTC: DBHSY - news) grew like-for-like sales 5pc in December, while only this week H&M said its UK sales grew 9pc in the year to Nov 30.
With investment and the right strategy, therefore, it is still possible to thrive on the high street.
The Trinity Leeds development, which opens on March 21, provides an intriguing glimpse of the potential future for shopping destinations.
A total of 20pc of the centre will be occupied by food and leisure operators. This is almost double the 12pc that Land Securities initially planned and is because of strong demand from the sector. The occupiers range from family restaurant chains such as Nando’s to Sir Terence Conran’s upmarket D&D London business and the first cinema from the boutique chain Everyman outside London.
Along with the announcement of Lavazza’s expansion plans this week, this demonstrates how businesses outside the retail sector can pick up the slack on the high street from store closures. Other potential occupiers, particularly in smaller towns, could include museums, community clubs and doctor’s surgeries.
“People need another reason to go to places,” said Andrew Dudley, the development director behind Trinity Leeds. “You can do a lot of what we offer here on the internet.”
There is no doubt that it is easier for major urban centres like Leeds to attract businesses than smaller towns like Margate, where almost 40pc of units on the high street are empty.
However, amid the gloom of retail administrations, job losses and shop closures, the positive signs at Argos, Primark and Trinity Leeds demonstrate to local authorities and the Coalition that high streets are capable of evolving.
Much can be done to nurture this evolution, such as loosening planning laws around changing the use of a property and levelling the tax imbalance between a high street business and online-only retailers. At present, a high street business not only pays more in wages and rent than an online-only business, but is also lumbered with a significant business rates bill that grows with inflation every year. According to recent evidence, online retailers also pay less corporation tax.
Even Amazon, portrayed as the enemy of Jessops, HMV, and Blockbuster, recognises the benefits of the high street. It has opened collection lockers in Martin McColl newsagents and local Spar convenience shops.
The high street is dead, long live the high street.