Mary Portas put the British high street on the general public’s radar when she was commissioned by the government to produce the ‘The Portas Review: An independent review into the future of our high streets’ in 2011. As part of the government’s Growth Agenda, the purpose of the review was to explore new business models for high street management and look at ways in which town centres can encourage economic growth, job creation and improved quality of life for communities. Everyone knows that the high street is struggling. In 2012 Peacocks, La Senza, Comet, Game and JJB Sports were just a handful of the retailers who entered administration leading to store closures. Following on from the Portas Review, The University of Southampton’s Prof. Neil Wrigley and Prof. Michelle Lowe were awarded ESRC funding for the High Street Futures project which aimed to produce a forward-looking and agenda-setting academic study which evaluated alternative visions of the future of UK high street.
On the 7th Feb. 2013 the High Street Futures team hosted an invitation only expert scoping panel to discuss the future of the high street. I was really pleased to have the opportunity to go along to the event which was attended by retail consultants, town centre planners, retailers and academics. Presentations were offered by the likes of Kantar Retail, Accessible Retail and the Association of Town Centre Management. It was a really thought-provoking day and reignited my excitement for retail, which, as I’ve become more and more interested in ethical consumption has waned. Why has it waned? Well, because retailers want to sell us stuff and in the main, we all have enough stuff! I would never now be comfortable working for certain retailers, yet there’s sense in the idea that if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. The high street is full of multinational retailers; they can offer us what we need and at a good price. I am conflicted by the desire to see a healthy economy and thriving high street, with the knowledge that we shouldn’t be encouraged to buy yet more mass-produced things, yet the high street of the future as envisaged by experts on the day doesn’t focus solely on retail and shopping, but on other ways to breathe life back into towns.
What went wrong?
We know the story of the recession – spending and borrowing was out of control. Hundreds of well known retailers grew to epic heights by cashing in on our materialist desires. Then the economy went belly-up, consumers slowed down their spending and suddenly retailers had to work harder to win our hearts over the competition. Furthermore, the competition was made tougher by the growth of supermarkets, out-of-town shopping centres and online shopping. Now, towns on average across the UK have non-occupancy rates of 15%. When Woolies went under, the country mourned (even though most people hadn’t stepped inside for years), but it was our fault in a way, as shoppers. Retailing is a democratic industry, we vote with our feet, and increasingly we are heading to Tesco and Amazon rather than long-standing high street stores. Generally the retailers we’ve lost have been bad retailers having failed to evolve, adapt or offer good customer service – a retail Darwinism if you will. Branded goods and retailers with a strong target market, as well as discount stores, have been some of the best performers over the last few years.
What needs to happen in the future?
The day wasn’t as bleak as you might think. The high street can survive as long as it adapts and all parties work together – retailers, landlords, councils and communities. Household spending may be flat but the economy is set to rise marginally this year. Town centres need to become places not just to shop, but to dwell, to live and to enjoy. I live in Southampton but only go into the city centre when I really need something, and even then often it is the bank, or to meet someone rather than to shop. But, I go to Winchester for no other reason than to wander and have an enjoyable time. What is it about Winchester that attracts me? It’s the aesthetics, the culture, the fact that you can sit in the cathedral grounds as a break from shopping, the up-market stores that make for great aspirational shopping, and the charity shops which sell cast-offs from the affluent residents. Winchester has the whole package. If I need serious shopping I might go to Gunwharf Quays or Westfields a couple of times a year because local high streets can’t compete with these mega malls and discount outlets.
Local towns need a USP and this comes from ambiance, events and independent shops. Indeed, indies should be encouraged to thrive and there was little, if any, representation from indies at the panel day, despite experts saying that towns need to offer something a bit different. Coffee shop culture is booming. You can’t walk far without seeing a Costa or Starbucks in most local towns and if this brings people in then all well and good. Town centres should be meeting places and encourage people to hang around rather than rush in and out. Parking and transport is obviously is an issue, and although free parking rarely seems viable or environmentally agreeable, I do think town centres should offer half an hour’s free parking if they want to encourage spending back from the convenience of the supermarkets.
We seem to be aware of the issues now at least, and lots of people are working on research and planning to keep town centres from crumbling anymore. The future of the high street lies with everyone – the retailers, planners, councils and of course, all of us consumers*.
For more information on the project: http://www.highstreetfutures.co.uk/
*Disclaimer – I would only ever encourage ethical consumption