Comet stores across the UK will, barring an unexpected last-gasp rescue deal, open their doors to customers for the last time on Tuesday.
After trading for 79 years, the final 49 Comet shops will be closed at the end of the day by the administrators to the failed electrical retailer.
The demise of the company will cost 6,611 jobs, as much as £50m to the taxpayer, and leave gaps on high streets and retail parks as far afield as Paisley in Scotland and Torquay in Devon.
Comet’s collapse - amid anger from employees at the behaviour of the company’s owner, Henry Jackson’s OpCapita - is the nadir of a brutal year for the retail industry, in which Peacocks, Game, JJB Sports, and Clinton Cards have all called in administrators.
However, there are already signs that 2013 could be worse. Last week, HMV warned there is “material uncertainty” about its own future, ahead of a key covenant test in January. The entertainment retailer has 238 stores in the UK and around 5,000 staff.
According to leaders in the property industry, the UK now needs a “complete rethink” about the high street.
Liz Peace, chief executive of the British Property Federation, said: “Given the structural nature of many of the changes facing the high street, such as the move to web-based retail and the weak macroeconomic environment, there is no point trying to put the genie back in the bottle and harking back to old high streets we all claimed to love.
“In many places, we need to have a complete rethink about how vacant property could be redeveloped into new uses.
“Compounding this problem is the Government’s wish to delay the revaluation of business rates until 2017, a damaging proposal that would impose top of the market rates on struggling retailers for a further two years.”
In the last 12 months, vacancy rates on the high street have stabilised at 14.4pc despite the wave of business failures suggesting that the worst might be over for retailers.
However, this overall statistic does not reflect the polarisation between leading shopping centres and high streets outside regional centres.
For example, yesterday the Association of Convenience Stores (ACS (Madrid: ACS.MC - news) ) warned that a quarter of shops expect their sales to fall in 2013, compared to 13pc in May. But at the same time John Lewis reported record weekly sales and one of the UK’s newest shopping developments, Liverpool One, said footfall rose 6.1pc on the same weekend last year to 250,000 shoppers.
James Lowman, chief executive of the ACS, said: “While events like the Olympics and the Diamond Jubilee may have boosted retailers’ optimism in the summer, they are now facing up to a tough 2013.
"Our research also shows that the Autumn was a tough trading period for local shops with half of retailers reporting a decline in sales over this period. This is the most pessimistic result since the survey started this February.”
Another challenge for the high street which is not reflected in the stable vacancy statistic is the wave of lease expiries which are now approaching.
The length of traditional British retail leases mean the pressure on retailers is yet to be fully reflected on the high street. This is because many businesses have been contractually tied to loss-making sites.
However, there is a collection of 20 and 25-year agreements that were signed in the late 1980s and early 1990s that are now reaching their conclusion. The worse case estimates are that 50pc of high street leases will expire by 2015, which could have a devastating effect.
Jonathan De Mello, head of retail consultancy at property agent CBRE, said: “Being able to engage with their customers across a number of channels [such as online], coupled with a very high level of property leases due to expire in the next few years, has led to retailers such as Arcadia, Mothercare (LSE: MTC.L - news) and many others announcing large cuts in the numbers of stores they operate.
“So whilst the worst may be over for multiple retailers in terms of administrations, the UK high street in all but the best locations will continue to suffer from a high level of retail vacancy.
“This will only increase in the short-to-medium term unless the Government takes more radical action than it has been prepared to do of late.”
De Mello’s comments highlight the emergence of a new trend in the retail industry for 2013 a divergence between the health of retailers and the health of the high street.
Comet may be the nadir for business failures, but it may not be for Britain’s ailing high streets.