I congratulate Richard Harrington on securing this important debate. I agree absolutely with many of his excellent points, which are based on huge experience of the sector.
The retail sector provides jobs for 3 million people nationally and is the UK’s largest private sector employer, accounting for about 10% of all jobs. More than half the people in the retail sector work part time, compared with about a third in other sectors, making it an important source of jobs for people seeking non-standard hours, such as pensioners or those combining work with study, child care or caring responsibilities. Retail is a diverse sector, ranging from market traders to high street giants, or from self-employed start-ups to global companies; they are the face of our high streets. Those high streets, however, are changing, not least because of the impact of the enormous growth in internet sales which, according to figures released this week, have seen a 10.9% increase since February 2012.
The UK is now the global leader for online shopping, and there has also been a dramatic growth in m-commerce —sales over mobile phones—of more than 500% in the past two years. Verdict, the retail analyst, has forecast that almost £1 in every £4 spent online will be through a mobile in 2017. A staggering 73% of smartphone users now use their phones when out shopping. Successful town centres in the future will be those that understand that, and where traditional retailing and leisure converge seamlessly with new technology.
Recent figures show that retail sales are up but that footfall is down, perhaps reflecting changing shopping habits that have led to many empty retail units nationally.
It is not entirely helpful to produce a league table of empty shops as a reflection of what may be happening in a particular town, because high streets are going through transition and many councils are looking to use some of the surplus units for other uses, such as residential use. A couple of hon. Members have made that point. That is why a key principle of the Portas pilots was understanding that high streets are not simply collections of shops but public spaces where people can socialise, eat out, access other services and enjoy leisure, arts and cultural activities. I am pleased that Stockport is one of the Portas pilot areas. Our pilot is being led by the creative industries bringing together local people to think up new and innovative ideas.
Stockport is facing the challenge of revitalising a traditional shopping arcade squeezed by competition from nearby centres in Manchester and Trafford Park, and the historic Market place and Underbanks with their empty retail units. We have attracted new retailers, in particular young entrepreneurs, into historic parts of our town. We have a “Vintage Village” market, which takes place every month in the market hall, attracting traders and visitors from throughout the UK. It recently won a prestigious magazine award and has been so successful that the organisers now have a permanent shop in which they rent space to other traders. The fair contributes to the efforts to regenerate the beautifully restored and redeveloped market hall and Market place into the thriving trade hub it has been for 750 years.
We also have the innovative teenage market, which Mary Portas has described as “unique and inspiring”. It was created in 2012 by teenage brothers Joe and Tom Barratt as an event where young people could have a free stall in Stockport market to sell their creative products. It is not only an event but an online television show and an initiative dedicated to supporting young creative talent. It provides a free platform for young painters, fashion designers, jewellery makers, graffiti artists, photographers, graphic designers, bakers, poets, comedians, musicians, singers, dancers and other performers.
Stockport’s famous Plaza, which is a splendid vintage cinema and theatre, has been awarded £20,000 from the Portas pilot initiative towards the cost of installing digital projection equipment. That has enabled the Plaza to start satellite screenings of the National Theatre, the Bolshoi ballet and, later this season, the Glyndebourne opera, alongside community usage for events and film screenings, including old and much-loved classics.
One of Stockport’s difficulties is that it shuts at 5 pm. It needs to develop a night-time economy to compete with nearby towns. Stockport market has a major role to play in enabling the change to a night-time economy. Traditional street markets like that in Stockport must provide better food offers, with specialist stalls, and offer cultural events. It must be seen as not so much a shopping experience but an entertainment experience—a sort of retail theatre.
On market day 750 years ago, families would come with goods to sell and see and experience the sights, smells and sounds of the market, which offered not only fresh produce but entertainment, food and drink and the chance to catch up with fellow townspeople. I believe that such an environment is still hugely attractive, particularly to families, and can provide early-evening entertainment that could kick-start a night-time economy in Stockport.
As chair of the all-party markets group and co-chair of the all-party retail group, I am looking forward to “love your markets week” in April, which will celebrate our historic markets and showcase new and vibrant markets. At the same time, it will offer training opportunities for new traders through the “First Pitch” initiative by the National Federation of Market Traders.
Like other parts of the country, Stockport has many empty shops, and the reality is that many will never again be retail units, but might start a new life as artist’s studios, outlets for council services or residential accommodation. Despite the closure of some retail chains, the issue is clearly not as simple as shoppers deserting the high street for their computer or mobile devices. Recent research has shown that frustration with online shopping is driving some customers back to shops. The market is complex and it is changing fast.
In Stockport, 5,700 people are employed in retail. The jobs are popular and sought-after. During a visit to a local Stockport store last week, I met many long-term staff, including people who had worked there for up to 35 years. They had a lot of commitment, local contacts and knowledge about their products, which all contributed to a friendly and successful store. The company had invested in them and they in turn had an investment in the company.
I was interested that one of the main themes at the British Retail Consortium’s annual reception recently was how to help people to build a career in retail. In a 24/7 environment, there is obviously tremendous pressure to have maximum flexibility from the work force, and many companies are introducing zero or eight-hour contracts to keep costs competitive. I acknowledge that some people may find that attractive, but others will have little alternative.
The problem with short-term contracts is that they are unpredictable, and people have no pension, sick pay or tax credit entitlement. That is clearly difficult for the work force, and I believe that in the long term it will be a problem for employers who will not get in return the sort of commitment they need from staff. In future, because of changes in how people shop, customers will want more service from staff in the information that they provide about goods, as the hon. Member for Watford said. That means that increased investment in skills and training for retail staff will be required, and that is not totally compatible with zero or eight-hour contracts.
Retail is a vibrant and exciting industry with much scope for future success. From market stalls to superstores, whether a trolley-shop in a supermarket or using the latest technology to buy online, the nature of shopping is changing. People no longer want just a shopping experience, and towns such as Stockport will have to be a mix of traditional retail, independent and specialist shops, special markets and cultural events. The challenge is to create a high street that is attractive to 21st-century mobile phone shoppers and also meets the social needs of the community. Combining retail with a place to meet has always been the challenge of the high street through changing times, but I am confident that with proper support the high street will survive, albeit in a new and exciting form.