Published in The Financial Times
Deptford High Street in southeast London has all the staple shops of our times: a 99p store, a string of bookmakers . . . and a tattoo parlour.
The parlours have become an increasingly common sight across Britain’s towns and cities. Their number has more than doubled in the past four years – far quicker than the expansion of businesses most associated with the changing high street, such as bookmakers and coffee shops.
Marcus Broome, who owns the Kids Love Ink parlour in Deptford, believes there is a simple reason that explains why his business is thriving while general retailers have retrenched: “You can’t get a tattoo delivered.”
Now that the internet accounts for about a fifth of all non-food retail sales, according to the British Retail Consortium, the businesses that have prospered on the high street are those that require customers to be there in person.
There is another big factor in the proliferation of tattoo parlours: high street vacancy rates shot up after 2008 and have remained high ever since. This is because general retailers – under pressure from lower consumer spending during the recession and the shift to online shopping – have either gone out of business or moved elsewhere.
The high vacancy rate has provided smaller businesses with opportunities to get a foothold where they could not before, says Peter Cooper, UK retail portfolio director at Hammerson, a property group.
“There [are] opportunities for companies that couldn’t previously get a look-in: local products, local operators, bespoke smaller stores,” he says.
Alongside tattoo parlours, discount stores and betting and coffee shops have been among those filling the gaps.
The increasing dominance of coffee shops, in particular, shows no sign of slowing. There are now about 16,500 of them in the UK, according to Allegra Strategies, a food and drink consultancy. This figure will hit 20,500 by 2018, they say.
The rise of internet shopping does not necessarily mean high streets will end up as parades of endless betting and coffee shops. Retailers will have a future there, in particular if their bet on click-and-collect, where customers buy online but pick up goods in store, pays off.
“[It’s] not about bricks versus clicks – the most successful retailers combine these elements. Digital technology can reinforce the high street,” says Will Roberts, head of media and campaigns at the British Retail Consortium.
Click and collect has been seized on by some in the industry, particularly groups such as Argos, where it accounts for about a third of sales. In the run-up to Christmas last year, almost two-thirds of online orders at John Lewis were collected in store.
There are also some signs of recovery on the high street. In December, the vacancy rate in Britain’s town centres dropped below 14 per cent for the first time since 2010, as new businesses filled the gaps left by retail, according to the LDC. It currently stands at 13.5 per cent.
But despite the growth in tattoo parlours, the future for this line of high street business looks less steady – the increase in numbers has not been matched by a similar rise in demand, says Marcus Henderson, a former president of the Tattoo and Piercing Industry Union.
This has not put off the hundreds who are attempting to forge a career in body art. Diamond Jacks, a long-established tattoo parlour in Soho, said it receives between 50 and 100 inquiries each week about apprenticeships.
There is a worry in the industry that the recent expansion is unsustainable. “Over the past few years it has never been easier for someone to come into the business,” says Mr Henderson. “There is a feeling that we are reaching a breaking point. People want a slice, but the pie is not getting bigger.”