Evesham town centre retail – a few thoughts

At last Monday’s town council meeting, we were given a brief report by Shawn Riley, of the Evesham Market Town Partnership, about the town centre retail areas. The MTP has recently gone to the effort and expense of obtaining a lot of useful data about Evesham’s retail areas and how that compares to other, similar towns around the country. As a data nerd myself, I found it highly interesting. Here are some of the key findings.

Probably one of the most important things to note is that the vacancy rate – the proportion of empty shops – in the town centre, excluding the Riverside Centre is, at 13.2%, a little worse than the UK average of 12%. But it’s significantly better than the regional average of 15.3%. And, overall, Evesham has a higher proportion of independent shops than the national average (71% in Evesham compared to 66% nationally).

On the face of it, that looks like reasonably good news. Where it goes pear-shaped is when we add the Riverside Centre into the equation. The Riverside Centre has a whopping vacancy rate of 47.2% – that’s nearly half empty. And that drags down the town’s overall vacancy rate to 16.2%, which is not only worse than the national average but worse than the regional average as well.

So, what’s the problem? Well, we don’t really have too many shops overall. There are 358 retail units in Evesham town centre (that’s excluding the edge of town retail parks), which gives us an average population-to-shop ratio of around 55. That’s in the same ballpark as Pershore (57 people per shop) and Stratford-upon-Avon (56 people per shop), a little higher than Tewkesbury (47 people per shop) and a lot lower than Kidderminster (170 people per shop). But Kidderminster is the regional sore thumb, with an overall vacancy rate of 19.5% – we’re doing much better than that. We also have a lot more shops than Droitwich, despite being very similar sized towns. But I suspect that their retail centre suffers from being much closer to Worcester than we are (and Kidderminster is in easy reach of both Worcester and Birmingham, making it much harder for retailers there). Droitwich doesn’t have many shops, but it has a lower vacancy rate, suggesting that it’s never been a particularly retail-heavy town.

Looking at the Riverside Centre in detail, a number of things become obvious. One is that it has very much lower proportion of independent retailers, at only 33%. And the national retailers that it contains are almost all doing badly at a national level. We already know, for example, that Burton won’t be renewing their lease when it expires. But looking at their national figures, that’s not surprising – they’re in close to free fall across the country at the moment. Carphone Warehouse are also closing shops, as are New Look, Superdrug and H Samuel. Only three of the Riverside Centre’s chains are showing significant national growth, and one of those is one of the most recent newcomers, Sports Direct.

So the Riverside Centre’s problems are certainly not all related to Evesham. Having originally been targetted at national brands, the centre is now suffering along with them. Another problem is that, despite being aimed at national chains, the Riverside Centre’s units are mostly too small for them. That’s why M&S moved out, and didn’t return to the town until something more suitable at the Worcester Road retail park became available.

There are other, more local, issues, of course. The lack of access to the Riverside Centre car park from the centre and north of the town is certainly a major factor. But it’s hard to escape the conclusion that the Riverside Centre’s problems are mostly of its own making: badly designed in the first place, and dependent on a dwindling pool of national brands that can use its shops. It also means that fixing it is not easy, and for the most part – with the exception of the access problem, which really does need to be sorted out – beyond anything that can be done by local government.

Leaving aside the Riverside Centre for the moment, though, what about the rest of the town? The data obtained by the MTP does give us some clues.

Firstly, a brief diversion here into explaining terminology. Retailers can, broadly speaking, be divided into four main categories: Comparison, Convenience, Service and Leisure. Taking those in reverse order, Leisure is fairly easy to understand: it means things like cafes, pubs, restaurants, entertainment (including cinemas) and stuff like that. Service is also mostly self-explanatory: it includes estate agents, travel agents, banks and other financial institutions, hairdressers, laundrettes and the such like.

Convenience shops are those which people tend to use on a regular basis for repeated supplies of much the same thing. Supermarkets (of all sizes) are the obvious example, but other food retailers such as butchers and bakers also fall into this category, as do newsagents and petrol stations.

Comparison is probably the hardest term to explain. In essence, what it means is shops that sell products that you only buy when you need them – things like TVs, washing machines, bedding, computers, clothes and shoes. Unlike convenience products, where you generally know what you’ll be buying before you go to the shop, comparison products are usually selected after comparing different versions of the same thing – either within the same shop or at different shops – before buying. Hence the name.

Nationally, comparison stores are suffering far more badly than the other three sectors. And a major reason is competition from the Internet. You can’t go to the pub on the Internet, or get a haircut on the Internet. You can buy food on the Internet, but the biggest suppliers of that are the supermarkets who are not competing with themselves. And independent grocers, bakers, butchers etc offer the ability to select and purchase fresh food in a way that a web-based retailer cannot (yet) match. The service sector is generally flat nationally, a reflection of the fact that some aspects of it (such as banking and travel agents) can easily be done online, while others (such as hairdressing) simply can’t. Convenience shops, on the other hand, are generally showing growth across the UK, while leisure is soaring ahead. All of the twenty fastest growing chains in the UK are in the leisure sector, and all of them supply food and drink in one way or another.

What that means for Evesham is that town centre retail growth is likely to come predominantly from the convenience and leisure sectors, with leisure being the largest contributor. And, in fact, we’re already seeing that to some extent. Evesham’s leisure vacancy rate is only 5.4%, which is not only much better than the retail average for the town but better than the national average for the leisure sector. The term “cafe culture” is probably over-used, but it’s clear that the future of traditional town centres like Evesham lies in a thriving leisure market. Convenience and leisure shops are also footfall generators; if you’re going into the town centre every day to get your lunch or to the butchers every week for bacon then you’ll be passing other shops and may be attracted into them.

Finally, one other point is worth noting. When we compare Evesham with similar sized towns across the country, then one particular statistic stands out. Irrespective of where a town is located, those which have a Waitrose not only have a lower vacancy rate than their regional average but also a lower rate than the national average. I’m a savvy enough statistician to know that correlation does not necessarily imply causality, but this is, nonetheless, significant. It doesn’t actually matter whether a Waitrose attracts other retailers (the so-called “Waitrose effect”), or whether Waitrose’s management are simply good at picking locations that are on the up (or even if there’s some entirely different cause which attracts both Waitrose and other retailers). What matters is that town centres which have a Waitrose are, statistically, far more likely to be successful than those which do not. So the fact that Waitrose are still on course to open a new store in Evesham is very welcome news.

Don’t spoil my enjoyment

I’ve just finished reading the script from the first episode in the new Doctor Who series. It’s pretty good, actually, apart from a rather large and pointless MacGuffin that initially threatens to derail the plot and a tendency (which, frankly, has been part of the show since the beginning) to rely a bit too much on Deus Ex Machina solutions to tight situations. But the primary plotline is well drawn, and we begin to get an indication of how the new Doctor’s character will develop. The ending is a particularly neat (and intriguing) twist that’s hinted at just enough in the preceding dialogue to make the savvy viewer (or, in my case, reader) grin when it happens.

A screenshot of the first page of the PDF

Apparently, though, letting me read the script is a bad thing. The BBC has issued a statement saying that

We deeply regret this and apologise to all the show’s fans, the BBC and the cast and crew who have worked tirelessly making the series.

While I appreciate the BBC’s concern, I have to say that, at least in my case, it’s entirely misplaced. I really don’t share the fear of spoilers when it comes to drama. And I think that the hysteria over leaks like this one (and the previous times that it’s happened) are driven by a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of both visual drama and the people who consume it.

Let’s look at that BBC apology in a bit more detail. Why are they apologising to fans?

There seems to be an implied belief here that fans of the show a) are incapable of resisting spoilers if they’re available, and b) will have their enjoyment of it damaged by reading them if they do.

The first of those is clearly wrong, at least as far as the vast majority of readers are concerned. Everyone who has ever read a book has all the spoilers they need right in their hands. It only takes a moment to flip to the last chapter to see how it all turns out. Most people don’t do that, though. They don’t have to consciously resist the temptation to skip to the end, they just want to enjoy reading the book all the way through.

The idea that people are incapable of resisting spoilers is deeply insulting to their inteligence. The fact that the Doctor Who scripts have been leaked isn’t going to make anyone read them who doesn’t want to read them.

It’s also not true that knowing how a story unfolds in advance spoils the enjoyment of it. If that were the case, then there would be no point making a movie or TV adaptation of a book, or one based on a well known real life event. But it didn’t hurt the box office takings that everyone knows the Titanic sinks. JK Rowling managed to keep us wondering precisely which side Snape is on throughout the series (at least until the last book, when anyone who wanted to know could just take a peek at the end), but nearly everyone watching the last movie already knew. And even movies and TV series based on original scripts can still be enjoyed the second or third time around, despite having already lost every possible element of surprise.

So there are two big falsehoods here: the idea that the fans are incapable of avoiding spoilers, and that their enjoyment of the programme will be damaged as a result. Neither of these stands up to anything more than cursory consideration.

There’s more in the BBC apology, though. After the fans, it mentions the cast and crew. Here’s a bit more of the statement:

We would like to make a plea to anyone who might have any of this material and spoilers associated with it not to share it with a wider audience so that everyone can enjoy the show as it should be seen on 23 August.

Apart from the reiterated implication that people won’t enjoy the show if they read the scripts in advance, there’s another little bit of weasel wording there in the phrase “as it should be seen”.

Now, I fully accept that it’s up to the show’s makers to decide how it looks when it’s on the screen. That’s what we pay them for; their skill as writers, set-makers, actors, producers and all the other roles that crop up on the end credits. In that sense, I do want to see the show as it should be seen. But it’s a big, and entirely unsupported, leap from there to suggest that “as it should be seen” includes the absence of any knowledge about the content. My reading of the script in advance will not change the show. It will be exactly the same programme for me as it is for everyone else who watches it.

So why shouldn’t I read the script before watching the programme? In what way is this different to reading a Harry Potter book before watching the film of the book? Who, precisely, is being harmed by this?

I’ll just throw in a couple of side comments here. The first is that reading the script is very different to seeing the programme in advance. There are cases where TV programmes and films have leaked to the Internet – not the script, but the video itself – prior to the release date, and it’s fairly easy to see how that could harm the makers. It may not harm them as much as they think (and this is the “sharing isn’t stealing” argument again, but that’s a different issue that I’m not going to go into here), but the potential for at least some quantifiable harm is obvious. In the BBC’s case, they make a lot of money by selling Doctor Who around the world, and if the show was readily available online prior to the transmission date then some broadcasters may be less inclined to pay for it. But the script doesn’t fall into this category.

The other point is that there is a sense in which reading the script in advance is definitely wrong: it involves a clear breach of copyright. But, oddly enough, this isn’t even hinted at in any of the comments either by the BBC as a whole or from Steven Moffat, the writer. Of course, there is the argument that an unpublished script has no commercial value and hence the infringement causes no financial loss. So there would be no point in the BBC trying to sue me, or anyone else with a copy, as it wouldn’t be worth anything in damages (although that argument disregards the possibility that the BBC may want to publish the scripts at some stage in the future, which is by no means implausible). Even so, I do think it’s telling that the BBC doesn’t seem to think that copyright law is a useful angle in this case.

Anyway, back to the question. Why shouldn’t I read the script before I watch the programme? It is’t hurting me to read it. It isn’t hurting anybody else if I read it. It isn’t hurting the BBC if I read it. And the one legal reason that the BBC could utilise to prohibit me reading it is not, in fact, being used.

There are actually two possible answers to this. The first is that this is just another example of corporate arrogance, of the provider forgetting who is the customer and who, ultimately, pays the provider’s salary. After all, if it isn’t doing any real harm, then why get so worked up about the leak of a few scripts? If people gain enjoyment (as I have) from reading them, then why try to stop them? It’s only an issue in the minds of those small-minded enough to make it an issue, and those small minds don’t control my mind.

That’s certainly a plausible hypothesis. It fits in with Steven Moffat’s own comments on previous leaks, where he expresses contempt for people who share them and makes it clear that, as far as he is concerned, a story has no value unless it is secret (so it’s a good job that he works on original drama, then, and not on adaptations). And his belief that “stories depend on shocking people” possibly explains why for me, and, seemingly, quite a lot of people, the revived series went downhill a bit after Moffat took over from Russell T Davies as lead writer. It’s fashionable to blame that on the departure of David Tennant, but it seems to me that the real problem with the Matt Smith era wasn’t Smith, but the material he was given to work with. It will be interesting to see if Peter Capaldi’s Doctor is more three dimensional. And it’s definitely believable that Steven Moffat really is so far up his own posterior that he genuinely feels deeply hurt by the leak of a script.

But still, why does it matter? There is, as the saying goes, no such thing as bad publicity. It has to be said that this story has given the new series plenty of publicity. And it’s not like it’s never happened before, either.

So maybe, just maybe, someone in the BBC’s publicity department, either with or without the approval of the show’s makers (almost certainly without, if Moffat’s comments are to be taken at face value, or even half face value), has orchestrated the leaks deliberately. If so, I have to hand it to them. There’s nothing like a good dose of viral publicity.