Over the past ten years, the number of shops in Flanders and Brussels has decreased by 15 %. Strangely, the vacancy rate increased, but so too did the amount of retail space that was actually used. E-commerce is often presented as the culprit, but the story is actually much more complex than that.
Decline in all cities
In the surveyed area, there are 9703 fewer shops than in 2009, representing a decrease of 15 % to 54,221, says research company, Locatus. The decline in the number of shops can be seen in all major cities. Electrical shops (- 35 %) and fashion shops have been hit in particular: there are now 2200 fewer fashion shops than ten years ago. A direct consequence of all these closures is an increase in the vacancy rate, which rose from 5.7 % to 9.9 % over the ten year period.
The rise of e-commerce is often mentioned as the cause of this evolution: if people buy more online, there is a decrease in footfall in shopping streets. "This is detrimental to those shops who survive on people making impulse purchases", retail expert Gino Van Ossel explained in Belgian newspaper De Tijd: "There are fewer people who go to a shopping street for clothing purchases, but walk past a multimedia store like Fnac and think: ‘Now that I'm here, I can just as well pop in Fnac’."
There is something else going on as well: people spend less on clothing and more on trips and travels, says van Ossel. This position is supported by Jan De Nys, CEO of Retail Estates: "Ten years ago, people were looking for value for money. That has been replaced by 'style for money'. For many people, the quality of an item is no longer so important: it has to be cheap and it has to look good."
Large retail chains
Another evolution playing its part is the increase in scale and globalisation. More and more shops are part of a large chain. Almost a quarter of all stores are now part of a major player, compared to 17 % a decade ago. "Anyone who wants to sell clothing at a profit must do so cheaply. Large international chains do this best", De Nys says.
Due to the rise in number of chains, the average shop has grown larger: the total floor space being occupied has even increased from 12.52 million sqm to 13.09 million sqm over the past ten years. Including vacant properties, retail floor space has even increased by 10 %.
Especially around the outskirts of a town, numerous new retail parks have been built, at the expense of those shops in the centres of towns and villages. Despite city centre vacancies, many cities and municipalities also have plans for even more shops outside of centres. Spokesperson Mia Vancompernolle of independents' organisation Unizo mentions an additional 100,000 sqm of retail space: "We just build up vacant space," says the spokesperson in De Standaard.
The large projects on the outskirts of towns are at odds with the 'city centre strengthening policy' that the region of Flanders has been advocating since 2010. Unizo therefore believes that there is a need for an overarching vision, because today, it is still the municipalities and cities themselves who can decide on the construction projects taking place on their own soil.