The future of the high street
It’s tempting for those of certain political persuasions to blame austerity and government cuts on the current malaise that’s facing the high street. That’s not to say that stagnant wages and decreasing household incomes haven’t had an effect on the overall decline of high streets, but it’s an overly simplistic answer to a more complicated question.
Perhaps there’s something to be admired or even treasured about the decline of a consumer culture that ran completely amok for nearly 40 years across The West. The idea of driving 10 miles to wander around a soulless high street or shopping centre to buy a new pair of pants or even an entire outfit feels counter to the popular current of just staying in and getting it delivered.
Studying government data on business rates between 2008 and 2015 shows that in all but five local authorities in England and Wales, total retail floor space shrank – in more than two-thirds of local authorities, floor space shrank by over 20%.
High profile casualties recently, in particular Woolworths, Toys R US, Maplins and House of Fraser, look set to include high street giant Debenhams. The BHS pension scandal, which appears to have all but eviscerated Phillip Green’s reputation, still looms large.
It’s not a trend that looks likely to be decreased either, despite what Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has promised – namely a register of landlords with empty premises and cheaper parking charges.
The fact is that people just aren’t really interested in going out in all weathers just to tramp around shops that offer vanishingly little choice compared to online retailers. Realistically it’s the natural conclusion to capitalism in that shoppers demand more for their money,.
In a simple thought exercise it’s really not difficult to see what’s alluring about picking a few items of clothing from home for less money and having them delivered to you within 24 hours, safe in the knowledge you can return it and get a refund if it doesn’t fit.
With that in mind, however, what are we likely to see from high streets in the future? The answer appears to be experience-led consumerism. Café’s, restaurants and cocktail bars are experiences that can’t be bought online. Similarly, cake shops, niche food markets and artisan small retailers are set to increase their share of the market as shoppers demand more of a unique experience if they’re going to be tempted to leave the house.
The impact on communities and society at large of having rows of empty shops is a large one. Simply the aesthetic of a boarded up high street drives away investment and wealth creation. Those in the community with the means to do so will ultimately leave, meaning that only poverty exploiting shops such as bookmakers and pound shops can thrive.
Aside from that, there’s a very real cost to people’s livelihoods;- Labour analysis estimates 100,000 retail jobs have been lost in 3 years.
There is a real possibility for British high streets to take the lead by utilising a new way of thinking; namely by providing high quality local services and experiences as well as artisan products to ensure that visiting a small town’s high street is much more of an experience, rather than browsing tired and expensive shops that can’t compete with the internet. Whether the country will realise that potential is another matter.