The high street as we know it is dying, but it’s not a bad thing, nor is it a good thing; it’s just evolution. Once popular town centres are seeing a fall in retailers that have occupied the same space for a generation or more, to be replaced with empty units and pound shops. Despite popular opinion, I don’t think we should attempt to save the high street. The brands that still have a high street presence should adapt. If they can’t adapt to stay in traditional retail, they need to reassess the very foundations of their business. If the high street can be saved, let it save itself. If it can’t, let it die a quick and painless death.
Local Growth Minister Mark Prisk maintains that the high street can be saved, through measures he outlined to 27 “Portas Pilots” in Loughborough. The first is improving parking in town centres; a challenge considering the very limited nature of on-street parking and the commercial interests of private parking operators. The second main solution is to make it easier for pop-up shops to operate.
Pop-up shops are short-term activities, much like the mind-set of Mark Prisk.
One pop-up shop on a friendly road nestled amongst more established, trendy retailers, cafes and bars may work, but a street full of pop-up shops in a neglected town centre with same-same merchandise equates to a lot of travelling retailers struggling to make a living week to week.
Further measures introduced by Prisk include a £1 million Future High Street X-Fund; a scheme where locations apply for a slice (or all) of the one million pounds to help, in the words of Mark Prisk: “high streets getting facelifts to bring business flooding in”. There is also a £500,000 fund for Business Improvement Districts to help town centres access more loans.
What I can’t believe is neither Mark Prisk nor the Mary Portas Report mention how to integrate, or capitalise on digital. If the internet is one the main cause of the decline, why isn’t there advice or funding for better digital integration?
The most cited cause for the high street’s demise is the uptake in online shopping, followed by the growing popularity of large out-of-town shopping centres. Both of these causes highlight two major deficiencies in town centre shopping. The internet gives much more choice, and makes it easier to find the lowest price, where as shopping at a shopping centre is on overall better experience. From easier parking, personal safety and to being out of the elements to many popular brands all in close proximity, shopping centres have a lot going for them. The rent is not cheap in these places, but that serves to keep away the lame and fragile businesses that are too afraid to invest.
The most valued metric in business is the pound. It measures our needs, our desires and even our confidence. Right now, the pound is saying that people don’t want to shop on the high street.
If we look at other English speaking countries like The United States, Canada and Australia, the shopping centre has ruled for decades. Because most of their towns weren’t built on Tudor or Georgian foundations, they had less to lose in the sense of a village atmosphere, so the change wasn’t been so bold and scary.
At this point, it should be noted that some small retail bsunesses are thriving by providing exemplery service. One that comes to mind is Rodgers Butchers on Byres Road in Glasgow's West End. Their retail unit is modern, clean and bright, and the butchers know the provenance of every single line they sell. Even without the recent packaged-meat contreversy they were doing a roaring trade and have built up a name amongst consumers, restaurant and hotels for being the butcher of choice when quality can't be comprimised.
While it is sad to see a part of history cease to exist in its current form, not many of us think it’s so sad that we’ll change our buying habits.
So if we aren’t going to change our habits, what is throwing public money at the problem going to do?
At this point, it should be noted that some small retail businesses are thriving by providing exemplary service. One that comes to mind is Rodgers Butchers on Byres Road in Glasgow's West End. Their retail unit is modern, clean and bright, and the butchers know the provenance of every single line they sell. Even without the recent packaged-meat controversy they were doing a roaring trade and have built up a name amongst consumers, restaurant and hotels for being the butcher of choice when quality can't be compromised. Unfortunately very few small business owners have the coinfidence to sell a better quality product at a marginally higher price, and provide better service, and are suffering..