Should the government dictate what types and numbers of shops are on the high street? This may seem extreme but erstwhile saviour of Charity Retail, Mary Portas, has recently suggested that the number of charity shops on the high street should be limited by tax laws.

This is not Portas’ only suggestion as she looks to turn around failing high streets and incentivise more independents with her High Street Review, as she was appointed as a Retail Tsar by the coalition.

Portas has recently toured the country looking at what issues different high streets face before drawing up her review of the high street. On one visit to Rotherham Portas was shown the size of the task facing the review. Rotherham, according to many, has never recovered from the building of shopping mall Meadowhall just three miles away. This has resulted in many shops on Rotherham high street being empty for 10 years and more.

With the recent economic malaise more charity shops have appeared on the high street, taking advantage of greater availability of premises. Accurate figures on this are hard to come by, but according to the Charity Retail Association there are approximately 7,500 charity shops in the UK, whilst Local Data Company believe there are 8,500. To actually track growth Civil Society’s survey of charity shops is possibly the best tool. In 2010, 78 charities responded to their survey, and they had a combined 5,375 shops in the UK. In 2011, 75 charities responded, and they had a combined 6,045 shops. This represents a year on year increase of 12.5% and on average 8.6 more stores per charity in 2011. (Please see comments below blog on these stats, as these are not true like for like figures).

The high street is ever changing and a reflection of society and the economy. With low consumer confidence and a stalling economy, yes the high street does need invigoration, and charity shops and discount shops have become more prevalent on the high street, as the above figures suggest. But, there is a cultural shift on the high street, which is probably best symbolised by Primark opening concessions in Selfridges. One of the most exclusive names of the UK high street allowing one of the cheapest, if not the cheapest, fashion retailers to open a concession. More and more people are looking for a bargain, dictated by the economy, as shoppers become more thrifty and all retailers are having to respond accordingly.

The economy and people’s changing needs have resulted in the rise in numbers of charity shops. Without them many more high streets would be blighted by many more boarded up, empty retail premises. And of course over recent years charity shops have transformed themselves in what they sell and how they market and merchandise their stores. Many have invested in retail EPoS systems, and this has attracted a greater footfall, ironically much of this is because of Mary Portas. It appears now pinpointing charity shops as the one of the main reasons for turning consumers off the high street is somewhat short sighted, and missing the bigger picture.

The high street is in trouble, but the biggest factor is the economy. When this recovers so will the high street, so how can the high street be re-invigorated in between? Well one issue is if people aren’t confident in the economy there is very little that will tempt them to the shops. But, focusing on consumers and what they want from their local high street, might be a good starting point in conjunction with tax breaks and incentives to attract retailers back to the high street might be a more compelling solution than side stepping the main issues and targeting charity retailers.

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