Article: The High Street is dead…

… long live the High Street

The High Street is dead…

The demise of the high street - once again in the news with Jeremy Corbyn, the British leader of the opposition, coming up with new ideas on how to revive the British High Street from its “retail apocalypse”.

There’s no doubt that the High Street, and arguably British retailing in general, is in some form of crisis. The large chains are suffering from near-bankruptcy and rationalisation (for example - Debenhams and House of Fraser) whilst there’s around 29,000 long-term empty retail units in the UK. Walk through any town centre and the signs are there - empty boarded up units inter-spread with low-value fast food and betting outlets.

The high street is dead, long live the high street....Even in wealthy Tunbridge Wells, where Hot Lemon lives, the signs are apparent with numerous empty retail units small and large alike.

“Once-thriving high streets are becoming ghost streets…”
Jeremy Corbyn

But what’s caused this retail despair and are there any solutions?

The causes of despair…

There’s been much discussion about what has caused this collapse of the high-street economy in what once was a “nation of shopkeepers”, but key themes include:

  • Reduction in disposable income - lowering overall demand
  • The rise of the internet – greater choice, reduced prices and with the development of flexible and comprehensive distribution networks – greater convenience 
  • Rising overheads – business rates and minimum wage
  • Over expansion and debt*

* in Tunbridge Wells there currently seems to be an explosion of barber shops (which indicidentally followed a previous explosion of coffee shops), in other towns betting shops and low-overhead fast-food outlets. All fueled by debt which becomes onerous once margins are pressured.

Other factors come into play as well, including:

  • The environment – how clean, safe, attractive the actual High Street is 
  • Facilities – open spaces, seating, toilets etc.
  • Accessibility – how easy is to get there - parking, public transport and the like
  • Clustering – the right type and mix of shops and attractions concentration thereof (i.e. within easy walking distance)
  • Single or mixed use – is the high street just retail (does it die after 5?) or are there pubs, restaurants, cinemas other attractions as well as housing. 

To a large extent these factors are controlled by the local government and the luck of the draw with regard to any historic attractions there might or might not be and the catchment area of the high street – wealthy or not.

Is there a way back for the great British high street?

A different view…

Let’s be controversial here. There’s a different view to the continuing demise of the high street.

In a word – complacency. 

Not by any one actor, but by everyone. The government, local authorities, estate managers and retailers themselves. 

The world has changed - new technology, new leisure and spending habits, different attitudes, vastly increased range of products and services, different working patterns, changes in work/life balance and the like – but has the high street changed to accommodate these?  

Many high streets have preserved themselves in aspic catering to a market which no longer exists. Collectively, they have failed to anticipate and adapt to the significant changes taking place within society.

Not the first time…

Yet this is not the first time that the high street has been imperiled. Back in the 80’s & 90’s we saw a similar disaster unfold with the rise of the out-of-town shopping centre / retail park.
These retail parks addressed many of the limitations which traditional high streets and town centres have and delivered a solution. Access was easy, there was plentiful of parking – free parking - and there was a cluster of complimentary retail outlets offering a sufficient breadth and variety of product to satisfy the most ardent consumer.

Did the high street learn?

Are there solutions…

So, if we think high streets and the traditional town centres are worth preserving – what are the solutions? 

Firstly, no one actor can deliver “a” solution. Just one retailer on their own won’t make the difference, likewise, one local authority with a plan won’t either unless supported by a group of retailers and other interested parties.

Secondly, there needs to be a fundamental understanding of the needs and wants of consumers and any proposed solution must satisfy these. It’s not a case of build it and they will come – because they probably won’t.

So, what are the needs and wants of consumers? 

Retail is still a thing – it hasn’t gone anywhere.  But the high street needs to recognise it has to be competitive with out-of-town retail parks and the internet. Competition doesn’t have to focus on price – the high street would lose – but on other features such as service, convenience, experience and the catchall “added value”.

The other great need is leisure. Consumers want to maximise their leisure time, and if this can be associated with retail – double win (in fact a significant percentage of consumers consider retail therapy to be leisure).

So are there solutions to saving the high street – well it depends on the high street as it’s unlikely that all can be saved. There are some bad high streets out there, and shy of knocking them down and starting again there’s not much which can be done to save them (note, this seemed to a popular thing to do in the 60’s – replacing historic town centres with brutalistic pre-textured concrete monolithic blocks – didn’t work too well in the long run).

  • But our starters for ten, include:
  • Environment
    Clean and safe focused on the job at hand – so if that focus is retail or leisure perhaps not a busy road running through the middle. The environment needs to be conducive to the behavior your trying to encourage – your trying to encourage people to spend time in a location – make it worth it.
  • Clustering
    Don’t spread it too thin. If consumers cannot walk easily between places of interest – quite simply – they won’t. Make it easy for consumers to browse, to wander.
  • Breadth
    Give consumers a variety of things to do – some retail focused, some more leisure focused. Spread activity times so that the high street doesn’t turn into a ghost town in the evenings – give consumers a range of reasons to visit – retail / food / social / experience
  • Accessibility
    Make it as easy as possible. Transport links and the like and, the big bug bear, parking – most consumers nowadays (depends where you are though) like using their car – they dislike walking a long way from their car unless it’s something very special
  • Barriers
    Remove them – it’s amazing how many little barriers there are to the high street / town centres. From cryptic one-way systems, lack of parking / charging for parking (it’s like a tax), busy roads etc. 

And finally

The fundamental secret of success is to give the consumer a reason to use the high street – to make it an attractive place they want to spend time – either for social reasons, leisure activities, or for retail – ideally for all of those. 

And yes, this requires investment from all parties, the government, local authorities and retailers. It needs to be planned – if you allow betting shops and friend chicken joints onto the high street – don’t be surprised by what it turns into.