Mountain Warehouse boss: 'The High Street is changing, but not dying'

By Sarah Dickins
BBC Wales economics correspondent

media captionHow Mountain Warehouse is bucking the High Street trend

The High Street is changing but not dying, according to the founder of the outdoor clothes chain Mountain Warehouse.

Mark Neale does not subscribe to the "doom and gloom" view of the High Street, despite some big names disappearing.

Last summer the number of empty shops in town centres was at its highest for four years.

But Mr Neale insists there is "a lot of life left on a lot of high streets".

He said: "I'm not some hired-in three-year CEO trying to make a fast buck.

"I've been running the business for the long term... and over that time you learn a lot and it's a constant cycle of continuous improvement."

Mr Neale was born in Ebbw Vale and brought up in Abergavenny. He opened his first store in 1994, and now owns 350 shops, 269 of them in the UK. Six new stores opened in Wales in 2019.

The company has grown continuously for 22 years and sales were up 13% last year to more than £225m.

Mr Neale said his style of running the business is a "relentless focus on value for money".

image captionMountain Warehouse is careful where it pitches up its shops

Asked if this meant driving down what they pay their manufacturers, he said: "No, not really. To be honest most of our products are made in factories where other well-known, maybe better-known, brands are made but because we are selling direct to the public we can cut out the middleman and that allows us to offer better prices."

Mountain Warehouse is "incredibly selective" about where it puts its shops, he added.

Its latest store is in Abergavenny where its previous unit has been taken over by the Neon Sheep chain of gift shops, Mr Neale's latest venture.

According to the Welsh Retail Consortium, the retail sector employs around 130,000 people - 10% of the overall Welsh workforce - but it has been under pressure in recent years. The Federation of Small Business Wales is among those who have said high street shops struggle because of business rates and more people shopping out of town and online.

Sara Jones, head of the Welsh Retail Consortium (WRC), said more needed to be done to enhance the economic vitality of high streets, adding a "costly business rates system" was holding back many firms.

"The most successful retailers are often those who effectively integrate their physical and digital offerings, allowing customers to browse online before purchasing or testing in store before making a final purchase," she said.

The Welsh Government said it had made its small business rates relief scheme permanent in 2018 and provided £230m in reliefs to ratepayers last year, plus £23.6m for the "enhanced" high street and retail rates relief scheme.

From Mr Neale's perspective business rates "probably need a review", and he said parking charges can backfire on councils if they put people off shopping, leading to closures.

He also acknowledged some sectors - such as video rental - have been more affected by the internet than others, but in Mountain Warehouse's case their stores effectively provide marketing for their own website, which accounts for around a quarter of its sales. When it opens a new store, its local online sales grow.

There are also times when only a physical shop will do.

Speaking from Mumbles near Swansea, Mr Neale added: "We love towns where there are visitors, tourists, people on a day out to the beach. If they come to the beach and it's raining, Amazon can't help them."

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