Herald Opinion: It has been a bargain Christmas

WALKING through Eastbourne Town Centre in the run-up to Christmas, you wouldn’t really know that there is an economic black cloud hanging over the nation.

The shops are bustling and busy, the queues are long, and whatever the convenience attraction of internet shopping, traders are putting up a spirited fight in the High Street to hold on to custom. The one noticeable difference this year has been the huge markdown on prices in stores.

The days when New Year Sales really meant there were bargains to be have disappeared with self-made paper chains and Morecambe & Wise Christmas specials. Traders have been discounting pre-Christmas for quite a few years now. Only this year, the markdown has been considerable. This has been a bargain Christmas. It will be interesting to note the stores’ trading results in the New Year, whether this festive season has been their trading salvation, or if shops have merely trodden water.

Which brings us to Mary Portas, who became a household name with her TV programme Mary Queen of Shops when she breathed life into failing retail businesses. Now she has the Prime Minister’s ear, having carried out an independent review describing how UK high streets have reached a ‘crisis point’.

The growth of out-of-town supermarkets has been a major driver for the decline of town centres judged by more than 25,000 shops which have closed since the millennium.

Portas, in unveiling 28 recommendations to give town centres an economic kiss of life, said, “Many (high streets) are sickly, others are on the critical list and some now are dead. They have reached a crisis point. Unless urgent action is taken much of Britain will lose, irretrievably, something that is fundamental to our society.” According to Mary Portas, high streets have to find a new raison d’etre, beyond retail, to survive.

Eastbourne MP Stephen Lloyd is co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group of Town centres which has been tasked with implementing the Portas recommendations.

He wants Eastbourne to be part of a pilot scheme to test out her proposals. The problem, as Mary Portas concedes, is that the horse has already bolted, and the domination of supermarkets will remain unfettered - for every £1 spent in UK shops, nearly 50p is spent on food and groceries with the country’s 8,000 supermarkets taking more than 97 per cent of grocery sales and a growing percentage of non-food sales.

For Mary Portas, you might as well try King Cnut to solve the shopping crisis. Though the solution is complex, the issue is simple. Provide a shopping fare which is rich and varied at competitive prices to create a culture where Eastbourne town centre will always be shoppers’ first port of call. Here’s hoping your shopping was fruitful, and local, wishing a very Merry Christmas to all our Herald readers.