Changing retailing

The changing face of retailing

We are living in changing times and one part of our lives that is changing particularly quickly is shopping. This means that one of the fastest changing human environments is our local High Street. It seems that many of the things that would have been written in a geography text book ten years ago are now often wrong. Many local governments would say that planning for the future of our city centres is one of their biggest challenges. If they get it right the prize in terms of jobs and money is huge; if they get it wrong then local people could be plunged into levels of unemployment and social problems far greater than the numbers of lost retail jobs alone.

undefinedOne major casualty of the changing High Street just before Christmas 2012 was Comet Electricals, a big player in UK (retailing) retailing which employed 6,611 people in 236 stores. Closure of all Comet stores has left the UK government having to support most of these newly unemployed workers. The treasury will also lose out on unpaid taxes of £26.2 million and have to provide redundancy payments of £23.2 million.

That money comes from the taxes of UK citizens; so all of us are affected. However, think for a moment about the families of those 6,611 people who lost their incomes just before Christmas and especially the children in those families.

The changing face of retailing - Administration


When a larger company or business is in trouble with money it can apply to go into administration. This means that it is protected from the people/institutions that it owes money to – its creditors.

The business will be run by a specialist company appointed by a law court. The company is called the administrators.


Administration in action - HMV

Brain box...

Sometimes going into administration can be good news for a company – in March 2012 ‘GAME’, the High Street video game retailer, went into administration. However in April 2012 the administrators managed to sell it to a group called Baker Acquisitions who not only safeguarded the jobs of 5,800, they even rehired some people who had previously been made redundant.

These administrators did such a good job that in January 2013, when ‘HMV’ music and game stores went into administration, the new GAME/Baker Acquisitions group was strong enough to offer to buy all of the HMV stores!

The changing face of retailing - Why have a High Street?

undefinedYoung people today might easily ask this question. Why spend money on bus fares, train tickets, petrol and parking when it is quicker, easier and usually cheaper to go online and with a few clicks of a mouse you can have your shopping delivered to your door?

Well, for some people shopping can be fun or even a social event. Often with clothes it is important that the shopper can try them on and find matching items such as shoes or accessories.

They need a place where they can go and try and compare items (comparative shopping) as well have something to eat or drink. Some High Streets are even becoming tourism destinations in their own right where people go and stay for a few days to go shopping.


Brain box...

These days, apart from comparative shopping, many of the reasons for our High Streets to be used as shopping centres have gone. The High Street used to be the place with the easiest access, often with different roads and other forms of transport coming together to form a transport node. Today, however, because of congestion the High Street is often the hardest place to reach and even when you do there may no parking.

Because the High Street was the most accessible place in a town or city, it was also the location for other businesses with large office blocks for professionals (e.g. lawyers) or financial services like banks. All of the employees and customers of these companies would help to provide a market for retailers, helping High Streets grow as shopping centres.

More recently many of these businesses, as well as local government offices, that would have been in town centres have slowly moved away as access to town centres has become harder because of road congestion.


The total number of people in a town centre or High Street is called footfall. High Streets used to have the highest footfalls and therefore they attracted specialist retailers and services providing goods or services which are more expensive and are not needed very often by customers – termed high order goods or services. These businesses needed a lot of potential customers in order to survive – a number that is called the threshold population.

Concept: Threshold population

Jessops, the photography retailer, provides a good example of a business that requires a high threshold population. Jessops went into administration in January 2013 and closed down, costing 1,534 jobs across 187 stores.

undefinedIn many ways it was a classic High Street type of retailer. The theory is that people would buy high order goods such as cameras very rarely, so a specialist store like Jessops would need to be in the High Street of a big town or city with a large population in the surrounding area. The size of the number of people needed in the area to support a business such as Jessops is its threshold population.

Although many more people now buy cameras, we tend to either buy online or in a mass retailer such as a large supermarket which gives us much more convenience than visiting the High Street. As the number of people visiting the high street who intended to buy a camera decreased. Jessops' threshold population grew too large and the stores were no longer viable.

The changing face of retailing - Moving with the times

undefinedBlockbuster is a chain of 521 UK stores with 4,190 employees; it also went into administration in January 2013. Like Jessops and HMV it had failed to adapt to a changing business world. Blockbuster’s main business was to rent out DVDs and video game discs. However, in recent years it found that many people didn’t want the hassle of going to a store to collect and return a disc. This is especially true since it is now possible to stream movies instantly or order online and have them delivered and returned by post.

However, the Blockbuster chain has many very well placed stores and could well be a success if it incorporates a similar model to a takeaway/delivery food outlet (e.g. large pizza chains). Imagine ordering your pizza or other takeaway food online, as well as your movies or games rental. They are delivered together within the hour and after watching or playing them you simply drop them in the post to return them to the store.

Pupil Activity

Virtual Fieldtrip:

Working in groups of 2 or 3, use a G.I.S. (Geographical Information System, e.g. Google Earth or Google Maps) to visit your nearest large High Street: 

  • Look for retail units that are empty, collect images on PowerPoint slides

  • Ask yourself: What types of shops are disappearing from your High Street?

  • Try to predict any other retailers that you think might be at risk; explain why you think this.

At the end of the session, the groups need to present and defend their ideas to the class.


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