Sorting out our shops

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I HOPE you’re more or less done for Christmas shopping by now.

The speed at which Christmas has crept up on us has shocked me – it only seems five minutes ago that it was October. Now we have less than two weeks to go before the big day.

My only real task for Christmas shopping is to buy for Mrs Wright.

I think she wants perfume, as she has been dropping some general hints in this direction, but I think the lovely patterned ironing board cover I have my eye on for her will be that much of a surprise when she unwraps it. I got her one last year too, so she really won’t be expecting another this year.

The chances are that the way you shop for Christmas presents has changed significantly in just a few short years.

The economic difficulties will mean that, for far too many people, Christmas will be something of a financial difficulty. The Government’s increase in VAT to 20 per cent earlier this year won’t help either. When people are faced with ever rising bills for food, petrol and energy costs, it can’t be considered a surprise that our retailers are struggling.

But there are also longer term trends in shopping that are evolving. An increasing number of people now shop on-line: it is estimated that, despite the economic problems, an astonishing £7.5 billion will be spent online this Christmas.

There are also big shopping malls, such as the Metro Centre, which have changed the way we shop forever. It isn’t just the Metro – I was speaking to a group of ladies in Hartlepool a couple of weeks ago and was surprised to hear that they had gone shopping to Sheffield Meadowhall for the day. There has also been an explosion of big supermarkets, where increasingly you can buy everything, including the kitchen sink.

This combination of economic difficulties and longer term changes in shopping habits have had an impact upon local shopping centres, including our own shopping centre of Middleton Grange. It was depressing to read earlier this year that Hartlepool had a higher than average number of vacant shop units.

Given the struggle that the Hartlepool economy is facing, I’m depressed but not surprised.

It will also be increasingly difficult for the shopping centre to be at full capacity when the town has three very big supermarkets, offering not only the widest possible range of goods but also free parking.

This is certainly not a problem that is confined to Hartlepool. I was in Darlington a couple of weeks ago, for the first time in a very long time, and was shocked to see many vacant units in that town’s shopping centre.

It is for this reason that the Government commissioned Mary Portas to undertake a review of our local high streets.

She presented Mary Queen of Shops on BBC and is considered an expert on retail and shopping. Her report came out earlier this week and made for interesting reading.

I agree with her that local shopping centres and high streets should be at the heart of community, an area not merely for shopping, but for socialising, culture, health and creativity. She says in her report that: “The new high streets won’t just be about selling goods.”

She is right. The last Labour Government tried to encourage vacant units to be handed over to community and creative groups.

Given Hartlepool’s strong community spirit, why can’t that happen more in our own shopping centre? Perhaps local businesses could be given a unit in the Middleton Grange to see how they get on?

It would certainly be better than empty shop after empty shop.

You’ll never get back to a so-called golden age where high streets hark back to a traditional look of butcher, baker and candlestick maker.

People’s lives and shopping habits have changed too much for that.

But these places can reinvent themselves for the modern age and take on bold ideas to get people back shopping there again.