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Empty shops symbolise Britain's need for an independent retail revolution

Vacancy rates on Britain's high streets indicate that independent retailers need to find a more effective approach.

The challenges facing Britain's high streets have been a regular feature on the blog over the past week, with experts warning that an increasing number of stores are at risk of closure in the coming years.

If there was any doubt as regards to the relevance of the forecasts, figures released by the Local Data Company have revealed that vacancy rates in the nation's high streets currently stand at 14.1% - more or less unmoved from the 14.2% seen in February.

While this could be considered as nothing more than evidence that the situation remains unchanged, what's worrying is that the consistency of the statistics masks a decline in the number of independent retailers doing business in bricks and mortar locations.

According to the report, such stores are increasingly being replaced by restaurants and betting shops - positive news for the leisure industry, but a trend that suggests any chance of a nationwide improvement on the high street is being restricted by the struggles facing smaller retailers.

Regional divisions

Yet it's not just the erosion of these businesses that is causing major problems, as part of the issue is the regional disparity in vacancy rates throughout Britain. While in London the figure stands at 9.4%, in the North-West it's more than double, soaring at an alarming 20.1%.

Despite this being a startling factor in itself, even more concerning is the fact that the data shows 22 of the top 25 performing areas are located south of the infamous Watford Gap. In stark contrast, 21 of the worst 25 can be found in the North, the Midlands and Wales.

A regional divide between the north and south is nothing new, but such an extreme gap is surprising given the recent news that two cities at opposite ends of the country - Newcastle and Brighton - are leading the way when it comes to the number of SME start-ups in operation.

As such, it's clear that the issue doesn't lie in differentiating levels of entrepreneurial enthusiasm or ambition, but simply that certain locations are in far greater need of help than others - and aid needs to be forthcoming  if they're going to see their fortunes improve.

Indie revolution

While attempts are being made to provide this assistance - namely through the Portas Pilots and the Grimsey Review - it's initiatives such as Independents' Day that are helping to alert consumers to the importance of supporting local retailers.

By devising a superior product that will appeal to a specific audience, it's possible for independent retailers to stand out as more than an alternative to the superstores - they'll be identifiable for their better merchandise, too.

Run by The National Skills Academy, the campaign aims to get shoppers to buy from independent stores on July 4th every year, encouraging them to shun supermarkets and established chains in favour of smaller businesses.

This is just one of many ventures designed to support local stores, and all have the potential to make a difference. The real challenge, however, is to change consumer habits, long term.

It's important to acknowledge that there's no quick fix for this - no magic wand or miracle formula that will suddenly get people flooding through the doors of independent shops. Instead, the approach has to be to publicise why buying local can make a difference, and stores themselves can improve their chances by recognising the benefits of selling a product which offers something unique.

Crafting success

The principle here is one that we've touched on before, and it's one that has led to success stories in various industries - specifically creating goods with a focus on quality rather than mass-production.

By devising a superior product that will appeal to a specific audience, it's possible for independent retailers to stand out as more than an alternative to the superstores - they'll be identifiable for their better merchandise, too.

While the range may not be as extensive and could lack the potential to be marketed on a wider scale, building a loyal customer base that has faith in your products is far more effective than trying to compete with industry giants.

Indeed, such an approach means consumers who are convinced to at least try an independent retailer will realise the benefits of doing so - it's all well and good pushing people through the doors of smaller stores, but what's vital is that they're given a reason to return.

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