Will 2024 be a time for retail optimism?
Photo credit: image generated by Dall-E
According to figures from the Centre for Retail Research, 120,000 jobs were lost in the sector during 2023.
That’s 10,000 per month, or 2,500 per week, or 500 per working day. Whichever way you break it down, those numbers spell a lot of pain for a lot of people. However, deeper analysis shows that the awful figures actually represent an improvement – if that’s the right word – compared to the number of retail jobs lost in 2022.
The number of store closures in 2022 was more than 38% higher, the number of job losses more than 21% worse. It comes to something when 500 job losses a day is a sign of things getting better, but dare we hope that 2024 will see a real improvement?
There is optimism, but it is not evenly spread. So, while Sainsbury’s has reported strong sales of festive food over Christmas that was offset by a marked decline in some non-food ranges.
And, while some town and city centres are busy, others are certainly not. Retailers in Blyth, in Northumberland, for example are certainly feeling the pinch.
Given the number of store closures and uncertainty over future trends, it might seem unlikely that retail would be attracting new blood, but selling things does seem to hold a particular appeal for entrepreneurs.
Retailer Geek Retreat – which is admittedly seeking franchise partners – has found that 15% of people in the UK have set up some kind of business over the last decade, from fully-fledged businesses to side hustles.
Retail was the most popular business category for these budding business magnates, with 19% pinning their hopes on it.
Established retailers are emerging from their bunkers too. Over many years of covering retail, and in particular the design of stores, I have noted that there is often a burst of fresh store activity after a significant downturn in trade.
There are a number of reasons for this: many retail chains are sold during hard times, with new owners keen to invest to improve sales; some retailers get a sense of confidence when they perceive conditions to be improving, and develop new store formats to make the most of that; and some new stores are created to fill empty units created by retail casualties. Companies that have neglected their brand image during hard times accept that they need to raise their game as money comes back into the high street.
For those reasons it is encouraging to see coverage of new store formats and landmark openings as we enter this new year. Whether it is H&M trying out a new store format in Chelsea or a green light for plans to overhaul the look of London’s Oxford Street, this kind of investment is good news.
Of course, not all new store designs meet with widespread approval.
WHSmith is a stalwart of UK retailing in high streets and travel hubs across the country. But there has been confusion over a new look applied to some of its stores just before Christmas.
The retailer has been clear that is just testing this new style of storefront signage, and that there is as yet no plan to roll it out. That is a relief, as the new look uses a design style that is best described as typing, rather than branding.