Why some zombie businesses are good for the High Street
- 10 January 2013
- From the section Business
Friars Walk shopping mall in Reading was abandoned in 2004.
The front windows are boarded up and splattered with graffiti. Inside, shadows creep across checkouts, shop windows are smashed and empty.
At first glance, there's little difference between Friars and the 46,000 other empty retail spaces up and down Britain. But then you notice the pockmarks from plastic bullets and the smears of crimson fake blood.
This former retail space is no longer trawled by slack-jawed consumers, stupefied by sales - it's home to a real-life zombie experience hosted by Zed Events.
Several times a week, punters pay to have their wits tested by a group of actors playing the part of the flesh-hungry undead. The shopping mall is perfect - eerie, empty and labyrinthine.
Zed's Lee Fields and his colleague John Bibby have been hosting zombie days in Reading since last summer: "It's been really successful, we've run over 50 events here and have another site near Manchester. We use students and other local people offering 50 part time jobs."
Now they're on the look out for more empty spaces for fright-fests.
Zombies aside, this is just one of many ways of utilising empty retail property for new business.
Unused buildings can become useful and profitable again, and provide employment, if the right firms can use them. From art galleries in Margate to charity groups in Blackpool, vacancies can be opportunities.
Dan Thompson helps to run the Empty Shops Network, and his own business has been making use of empty retail spaces for over a decade.
He believes it gives smaller projects important flexibility: "They can just use spaces like this when they need them, without having the big overheads and commitments like a long-term lease."
The vacancy rate has begun to fall according to the Local Data Company (LDC).
Since the peak in February 2012, many vacant properties have been redeveloped or knocked down.
But Matthew Hopkinson from the LDC says a growing number of empty shops are becoming leisure venues. "Shops are having to change their use - distinction is the key word - consumers really want something different from their High Streets."
Just this week we've seen High Street favourite Jessops fall into administration, and analysts expect more chain retailers to suffer financial difficulty this year.
So what will town planners be putting at the heart of communities in the future?
Chris Wade, from Action for Market Towns thinks we'll see more gyms, crèches, galleries and art centres on High Streets.
"There could well be more housing, but hopefully above shop level, so you still have points of interest for consumers," he says. "It will be about putting a human face on the High Street."
So, far from sucking the life out, the zombies in Reading truly are an innovative way of putting the heart back into the High Street.
So be warned - they could be coming to a town centre near you.
BBC Breakfast is visiting a number of High Streets across the UK this week to ask what kinds of shops ensure retail success, whether leisure could trump shopping in our town centres, and what empty shops can become once the clearance sales are over.