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Did Greed Kill the High Street?

Towards the end of his book on the death of the British high street, Bill Grimsey offers a neat summary of what he thinks has gone wrong. It is worth quoting in full.

Greed, he says, 'is the common thread that runs throughout this book.
  • Greed by retailers to be bigger and better
  • Greed by property developers who put down more retail space than was ever required 
  • Greed from private equity players, who extracted value out of store chains without improving the proposition 
  • Greed by individuals (some of whom have become rich beyond their wildest dreams) who have in some cases pressurised companies to a point of collapse in their quest for financial success
  • Greed from the consumer to get more and more for less and less.'


Who is Bill Grimsey? An anti-capitalist protester, perhaps? A left-leaning academic with hand-bound volumes of Gramsci on his shelves? A frustrated and angry independent retailer moaning about the competition?
None of the above is the answer. Mr Grimsey used to be director of customer services at Tesco and chief executive of Wickes, the DIY chain, and frozen food store Iceland. His book, Sold Out, is an attempt to identify 'who killed the high street'.
The high street: dead, but not buried?
He starts with what sounds like a plea for the voice of business to be heard: 'Those at the heart of our shopping industry have a lot to contribute when it comes to deciding what is best for the future. It is time to hear their side of the story.'
And what a story it is. Although Mr Grimsey is stronger on anecdote than analysis, flavouring his narrative with numerous stories of his own experiences at the top of the retail industry, nobody comes out in a flattering light. While he repeatedly argues that high streets and the businesses that occupy them should move with the times, the vision of progress he describes is one of rapacious business takeovers, unsustainable debt-fuelled property deals and special offers that are as close to deception as possible while staying on the right side of the law.
Bill Grimsey is right: it is time to hear this side of the story. If we heard it from a campaigner or journalist, readers might be tempted to assume a bit of politically-inclined distortion. But this is a man whose style is more Daily Express than Guardian, and if he's had a Damascus Road revelation at the end of his retail career he's remarkably coy about it, considering his willingness to spill the beans on his former colleagues and competitors. There's no reason to assume he's being less than honest.
Mr Grimsey's thesis is that the high street is dead, and given that he's speaking as one of the conspirators, if not one of the killers, one might hesitate to argue. His conclusions are stark:
'It is only a matter of time before the UK, and in particular the north, is pockmarked by empty retail parks and malls, alongside abandoned town centres. When the whole merry-go-round stops playing, it won't just be landlords who will be left holding these empty properties. It will be you and me through our greatly diminished pension funds.'
Only by accepting that our high streets are dying, he argues, can we do anything meaningful about their future. He has a point, even if there are places where his post-mortem is premature. The trends, and more importantly the motives behind the trends, need to be taken seriously.
But having made his case, Bill Grimsey doesn't seem to know what to do next. He briefly talks about turning high streets into social and community hubs, but his comments are cursory and leave the reader with a sense of helplessness in the face of a juggernaut. The book reads as if it's been written in a hurry, with thoughts of the future hastily tacked onto the end.
Pointing the finger isn't enough. There are plenty of people doing that, all venting their ire at this institution or that. We need to point the way to a better future for our high streets. The good news is that there are many who still believe our towns and communities have a future, and are working hard to create it – well under the radar, it would seem, of those who run the UK's biggest retail businesses.