Shopfitter sector trends

Shoes and a handbag on rails in a white retail shop

(last updated July 2019)

What has been happening in the shopfitting industry

In the past, shopfitting was much less important to businesses and consisted mainly of installing shelves, counters and other basic fixtures that were necessary to store and display the goods that retailers sold. Nowadays, most retailers understand the importance of smart, modern and attractive presentation, and many change the style of their outlet on quite a regular basis just to keep it looking fresh and modern. The importance of good design has also been recognised by other types of business, including offices and even factories, while many organisations like museums, libraries and leisure centres have also adopted effective interior design.

Another thing that has changed over the years is the amount of legislation with which owners of public buildings and workplaces must comply. Issues such as health and safety, workplace environment and disability access have all presented both challenges and opportunities to designers and shopfitters, as buildings have had to be modernised to keep up with new legislation.

Economic developments

Two key factors affect the level of demand for shopfitting services:

  • the strength of the retail economy
  • the performance of the construction sector

In the early and mid 1990s, retailers and other businesses were not really investing in refurbishment. Many went out of business because the economy was sluggish and people just weren't spending much money. The construction industry was hit by this lack of investment and suffered from a real downturn.

Conditions improved during the late 1990s and early to mid 2000s as the retail economy and fortunes of the construction industry strengthened. Pubs, cafes and restaurants in particular were a good source of work as the popularity of eating out increased. However, strong demand for skilled and qualified workers in the construction industry as a whole led to major a skills shortage. This had the effect of pushing up wages and making it harder to find good, qualified workers in the industry - and shopfitting has been no exception. A number of initiatives were launched to increase the number of qualified workers in the construction industry, while the situation was helped by an influx of skilled migrant workers from eastern Europe.

The economy then took a sharp downturn in 2008 and challenging economic conditions persisted throughout the closing years of the decade and into the opening years of the 2010s. This inevitably had an effect on demand for shopfitting services as businesses all over the UK tightened their belts and many went out of business. According to the British Independent Retailers Association High Street retail premises occupancy fell from around 95% in 2008 to 85% in 2011. This period also saw prices of all types of construction materials rise steeply.

An improvement in the economy from the second half of 2013 saw confidence return to the High Street and retail premises occupancy increase to around 90%. There was also an upturn in the construction industry, with the value of output in the private commercial sector showing good growth from July 2013 until the second half of 2015, when the construction industry began to slow down.

The slowdown in the economy continued into 2016. The Brexit vote in June of that year, followed by the uncertainty surrounding the Brexit negotiations, led to economic growth weakening further towards the end of the year and throughout 2017. Increased inflation following the Brexit vote put pressure on consumers' spending power and resulted in them tightening their purse strings. As forecast, the economic slowdown continued in 2018 and no change is expected in 2019 or 2020. The construction industry saw little growth from 2016 onwards. New private industrial orders fell and any growth was dependent on an increase in infrastructure activity and private housebuilding offsetting a sharp fall in the commercial and industrial sectors. This pattern is expected to continue for the foreseeable future.

Vacancy rates on the High Street remained stubbornly high at around 10% during 2016 and 11% in 2017 and the number of applications to build new retail outlets has been falling for a number of years. House of Fraser had to enter into a company voluntary arrangement in 2018 before being bought by Sports Direct and other big name stores, including Debenhams and John Lewis, were in financial difficulties. A major factor has been reduced footfall on the High Street due to consumers increasingly buying goods online and this trend is likely to continue. Added to this, rent and rates are high and parking is difficult and expensive. Some major retailers are re-purposing their outlets as demand increases for collection points or showroom areas in which to display goods before buying them online.

The implementation of revised Construction, Design and Management (CDM) regulations in 2015 introduced several changes to the health and safety rules that cover construction projects and have a number of implications for shopfitters. The National Association of Shopfitters was involved in the consultation process for the new regulations and can provide assistance to members on how to adapt to the changes.

Keeping up with developments

A good way to keep up with developments in the industry is to join a trade association, such as the National Association of Shopfitters or the Guild of Master Craftsmen.

Trade magazines are another good means of staying up to date; the shopfitting industry has several devoted to it, including Shop Spec which includes a supplier directory and retail design features, and Retail Week (which includes a section on interiors).

You'll be able to get a lot of useful information at a trade show for the shopfitting industry where you will be able to meet contractors, suppliers and distributors. The Exhibitions website has more information on forthcoming exhibitions and the National Association of Shopfitters also includes details of upcoming events on its website.

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