Editorial: Let shoppers define 'needs'

When one of the principal restrictions to retail building schemes was scheduled for demolition last week, it was met by the usual round of bleating from the save-our-high-streets lobby, warning that it would bring the future of small shops down with it.

A report into the planning system, commissioned by the Treasury, recommended that the 'needs test' should be abandoned. The test, which is based on population densities and the supply of retail space to a certain area, is the determining factor in awarding planning approval to retail developments.

Certainly, the decision, if that is what it becomes, appears to go against the spirit of the times. Out-of-town superstores are distinctly passe, probably because the last red-tape cutting to benefit retail planning was of a distinctly 80s Thatcherite flavour and is blamed by many observers for the demise of town centres. The carbon-emitting means of getting to big supermarkets also makes any resurgence in their building appear decidedly reverse-gear.

In economic terms, fears of the effect of planning de-restriction also seem to be based on good cause. Oversupply drives the weakest players out of markets; in recent decades, smaller-shop owners have been protected to a degree by rules that prevent supply outstripping the requirements of the local populace.

For all these reasons, the small army of MPs, shopkeepers' associations and environmental campaigners to have come out against the report's recommendations may not face the community-sapping future of monolithic superstores and vast retail parks that they fear.

Competition in the retail sector is fierce, and unfettered expansion by the major multiples diminishing returns would be unpalatable to shareholders; the supermarkets have their own interpretation of the 'needs test', which limits their growth in the UK, but is far more sophisticated than an assessment of volume demand.

De-restriction will lead to the removal of one of the aberrations of a semi-free market that has given consumers easy access to a Tesco, but not to one or more of its main competitors. As expansion into non-food retail continues, the profile of the sector is also developing more swiftly than the planning processes can match.

There will undoubtedly be casualties, but the businesses, big or small, that best meet the needs of their customers will survive and prosper - the way it should be in a healthy retail ecology. A glance at some of the most dynamic brands on the high street - Zara, Subway, Primark, Lush, Fresh & Wild - prove that the biggest chains do not kill retail innovation, they encourage it.

WHERE WERE YOU?

Marketing celebrates its 75th anniversary on 7 March next year with a special issue. A range of features will cover the evolution of the profession and look back at how the magazine recorded key events. As part of this, we are looking for marketers who had a ringside seat at an event that made marketing history.

Did you book the first ad shown on Channel 4? Were you working in the tobacco industry on 'Marlboro Friday' in 1993? Or perhaps you were involved in the launch of ill-fated Persil Power? The issue will feature marketers who can give the inside story on watershed marketing moments. Contact claire.murphy@haymarket.com.

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