By Dave Young

High streets across the country have empty shops and an entire shopping mall recently sold for the price of a house. As many as 14 shops are closing every day, according to a report from accountancy firm PwC, with 2,692 stores shut down in the first six months of last year.

Hastings town centre, dominated by the Priory Meadow shopping complex, superficially appears relatively healthy with comparatively few vacant premises inside the complex or on surrounding streets.

However, many of the retailers present are local branches of national chains, each with their own problems. The good news is that Primark opens in March, replacing BHS as one of the two big destination shops. Sharp prices and (unusually these days) no Internet presence may prove a big draw, attracting customers from out of town and increasing footfall in surrounding premises

The other big Priory Meadow store is Marks and Spencer, serving a more upmarket demographic with food and fashion. One of Britain’s most iconic brands, it has had a torrid time of late. Around 100 stores, not yet all identified, are slated for eventual closure. With another large branch just down the road at Ravenside having much better parking (M&S customers can afford to drive) there are inevitably concerns for its future.

Almost opposite Primark, and serving a similar customer base, is another troubled fashion chain, New Look. They have recently announced the closure of 85 stores (again, the exact locations are still to be announced) with the lay-off of over 1,000 staff.

Almost next door HMV has, in the short term at least, a future. It has been rescued from insolvency (the second) by Canadian music chain Sunrise. The new owner appears to be pinning hopes for success on sales of vinyl. But Hastings already has three such outlets, including Wow and Flutter close by. Perhaps a better bet would be to emulate the savvy staff and wider music range of the Fopp outlets, also owned by HMV?

Debenhams lies on the fringe of the main shopping area. Flaky exterior paint (take a look from the seaward side) and all the interior charm and excitement of a 1970s East German department store. It is a national chain in deep difficulty. Part owned (25%) by Mike Ashley, who also includes Sports Direct and House of Fraser in his portfolio, Debenhams is currently planning store closures countrywide, the exact shops currently unknown. Given its usually sparse amount of customers, the local branch looks vulnerable, and what other use might the large building be put to should it close?

A food chain, Pizza Express, also attracts punters to the Priory complex. Like New Look its problems are complex and financial rather than product based. The Daily Express reported: “The company is owned by Chinese private equity firm… is due to repay around £650 million over the next three years. But their efforts may fall short, as the total debt accrued by Pizza Express amounts to more than £1billion, according to the group’s 2017 annual report.” The firm has also suffered from the rising cost of food, high rents and business rates and minimum wage increases.

A big problem in the retail sector is private equity investors (who usually know nothing of shops and care less) buying profitable retailers, often at a high price. They use the assets as collateral to take out loans and fund generous shareholder dividends and directors’ bonuses. However, with physical outlets declining in favour of internet purchases and rising revenue costs (see above) owners are often unable to meet the interest on debt repayments.

Much more than a local problem the worse may yet be to come for Hasting’s larger shops.

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