How to invest in Britain’s hottest high street

Britain’s high streets are bouncing back as consumer spending increases. Here, Matthew Partridge picks the best way to invest in one of the country’s hottest retail spots.


Canary Wharf: a dream location for retailers.

Britain's service sector the most important part of the economy is rebounding rapidly. A recent survey shows activity in the sector at 16-year highs.

Rising house prices fuelled by the government's efforts to reflate the bubble have boosted consumer confidence, and are in turn leading people to spend more.

As we've said before, this cyclical recovery could well run into trouble after the election. But in the meantime, you can take advantage.

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Retailers are one option. But it's hard to find any obvious bargains in the sector. There's another area that's benefiting from the rally on the high street commercial property.

And one part of London in particular looks well-placed to profit

Reports of the high street's death have been somewhat exaggerated

investing in the retail sector

Another option is to look at the companies who own the shops that retailers sell out of.

This may seem a risky bet. The "death of the high street" has been proclaimed across the land. A combination of high taxes and bills, sluggish sales and competition from the internet is destroying traditional retailers.

Soon the high street will host little more than cafes and restaurants, while the remaining shops will be reduced to collection points, where people can pick up goods they bought online. These don't need much space. So that means lots of vacant lots. Which in turn, means lower rents and lower property prices.

There is no doubt that variations on this scenario are playing out in some parts of the country. Some town's high streets face long-term decline. But often this is due to specific local problems.

On a UK-wide basis, the outlook is actually more positive than you might think. There are signs that retail chains are going back into expansion mode. Property group IPD reckons that the proportion of vacant retail spaces has fallen from a peak of 7.4% in the spring to 6.8% in August. It also thinks that rents and capital values for the UK as a whole are starting to rise again.

The UK's busiest shopping centres

It's a similar story in other areas. On the whole, rents in the regions are static. In contrast, Central London rents have gone up by 5.7% in the past year.

One part of London that is doing particularly well is Canary Wharf. Cheap office space and good transport links have helped it to weather the financial crisis. There are now more bankers in Canary Wharf than in the City of London.

Overall, 100,000 people work there, mostly in high-paid jobs, compared with 25,000 a decade ago. There is also a big effort to encourage technology firms to locate in the area.

This concentration of people with lots of cash and not much time, make it a dream location for retailers. The shopping centre that dominates the area is one of the most successful in Britain. For instance, the local branch of Waitrose enjoys the highest sales of the entire supermarket chain. Luxury retailers are also well represented. There are virtually no vacant spaces.

So how can you invest in Canary Wharf?

Now the company plans to open up a new six-storey shopping centre around the Canary Wharf Crossrail station. This station which cuts travel times from Canary Wharf to central London, and connects it directly with Kent is expected to become a major hub for the area. Even although the centre is not due to open until 2015, around half the retail space has already been pre-let.

CWG is also developing other projects. It has recently completed a major extension to one of the existing shopping centres, and is looking at developing other parts of Canary Wharf. The company is also involved in the Walkie Talkie' office block in Fenchurch Street (yes, the one that made headlines in the summer when the sun's reflection damaged a Jaguar).

CWG isn't directly listed. However, its parent company Songbird Estates (LSE: SBD) is. It's not risk-free by any means, since Songbird has taken on a large amount of debt. However, as JP Morgan point out, it has been careful to plan this. This means that interest payments are a relatively low 5.8%. At the same time, maturities are long so the company won't need to refinance it in for a long time. Trading on five times current earnings, and at a 12% discount to the net value of its assets, it's a buy.

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Dr Matthew Partridge

Matthew graduated from the University of Durham in 2004; he then gained an MSc, followed by a PhD at the London School of Economics.

He has previously written for a wide range of publications, including the Guardian and the Economist, and also helped to run a newsletter on terrorism. He has spent time at Lehman Brothers, Citigroup and the consultancy Lombard Street Research.

Matthew is the author of Superinvestors: Lessons from the greatest investors in history, published by Harriman House, which has been translated into several languages. His second book, Investing Explained: The Accessible Guide to Building an Investment Portfolio, is published by Kogan Page.

As senior writer, he writes the shares and politics & economics pages, as well as weekly Blowing It and Great Frauds in History columns He also writes a fortnightly reviews page and trading tips, as well as regular cover stories and multi-page investment focus features.

Follow Matthew on Twitter: @DrMatthewPartri