What can be done about our dying high streets?

The High Street and retail in general is going through a bit of a torrid time... I'm no expert on retail but I am an observer with a good grasp of economics, politics and running a small business... so what is it that is causing such turmoil?

We have heard how the Mary Portas 'High Street' initiative has failed (read more right here...) it was of course little more than a gimmick as +Clare Rayner (a specialist in this sector) already predicted! What we have here is a massive change in the way society operates... which includes retail of course... it was always going to require a bit more than a reality show and a celebrity to bring about change.

Society is going through one of the biggest shifts in the history of the human race right now... on a par with transitioning from the Bronze to the Iron age. A few years back when I mentioned at a conference in Birmingham that the Internet would change 'everything' it was met with some amusement, but we are starting (and I mean just starting) to see the implications of this... but let us not be under any illusion... the Internet hasn't caused all retail to suffer... and it isn't the cause of the general reduction in the amount of people spending money either... so it is a complicated problem with many contributing factors.

There are a number of major factors going on right now, some are having more of an impact than others, but they are all having an effect nevertheless...

  1. There is the Internet of course... a trend which means people don't have to go to the shops, they can research and buy almost anything on line now... it reduces footfall... reduces impulse buys...
  2. People are beginning to be develop a loathing for big businesses who appear to flout the tax laws or trample on people in the pursuit of higher profits... this is exclusively the domain of the multiples. But we also rely heavily on their convenience and that we know what we're getting.
  3. Supermarkets... we all use them... they have expanded to provide an almost one stop shop for all our needs... they are out of town too... great for parking, but they keep us out of the high street... the more we can do at the supermarket, the less likely we are to venture down the high street.
  4. There is a feeling that the supermarkets have become too powerful, are they serving us or really just serving themselves? every £1 we spend in a multiple only 10p remains in the local economy, but if spent with a local business... 50p stays in the local economy.
  5. High streets are no longer the prime real estate that they used to be... you only have to walk down the high streets of many of our towns to realise that the numbers of people visiting are well down, and there is an ever increasing number of empty units, where once businesses existed.
  6. Every high street or shopping mall looks the same nowadays... often you could be in any town in the country, you couldn't tell from the Mall as all the usual suspects are there. I know I find it boring, but then again I never liked shopping... but I did used to like looking around curio shops who had unusual products you couldn't find in other towns... where have they all gone?
  7. Then we have the financial melt down... a latent underspending to make up for all the overspending and debt we have built up over the past 20 years or so... essentially we are broke... as a country we don't have two pennies to run together... it is all fictitious money though... debt designed to keep us where we are, believing we're in a democracy (not the purpose of this post, more on that later on). But the net effect is that we don't want to spend when we are uncertain of the future and suddenly saving seems like a better idea than buying things...
  8. Lastly we have a shift in consciousness which when mixed with point 7 is starting to make us think that actually our own personal worth and value should not be measured by what possessions we have, how much money we earn, but rather in what contribution we can make... I know this is just a whisper at the moment, but it is gathering pace... and it is the beginning of the end of mass consumerism on the scale that we have witnessed in the past 3 decades...
So what can we do... what will happen to our high streets?

In my own experience of my home town of Watford... the retail area has been split into two sections, there is the Mall (the Harlequin shopping centre) which thrives (although there are more empty units now than I seemed to notice before) and then there is the original high street which is facing mixed fortunes. The top of the town fondly called the Parade which is where the famous pond is located has been turned into the Watford Cafe Quarter which.. a few years back saw 25,000 people visit on a Friday and Saturday night... I think this number is a lot less now as the economic situation hits even the young without large financial commitments. This transition to a 'night life' hot spot has also caused some issues with policing and night safety although personally I haven't been a victim on any of my frequent visits.

What could the changes be then, what are our options? 

I think a number of things need to happen, but they are pretty fundamental... The high streets represented prime real estate in the past as I mentioned before... rates are high, rents are high... too high for local business people to be able to afford. There is no shortage of local people who would willingly take on a unit, but not at the extortionate unrealistic prices of today. So landlords have to get real... so does the councils with their rate systems.

The challenge with the landlords is that they are 'used to' high rentals... so accepting a lower rental is not on their radar... what I know happens but doesn't make any sense (except financially) is that they would rather leave the place empty because of monetary concessions than have someone in there on a reduced rate... this isn't helpful is it? the system has to go through a bit of a metamorphosis...

The councils also have to rethink their rates system... I know they are under pressure with financing, but they have to get leaner... not cut services, but cut the salary bill, office and admin, outsource more... there just has to be a way to get leaner still... we can't afford what we pay... so they have to reduce what they cost, it is that simple... reduced rates would encourage people to start occupying the units again... perhaps we would see a return of locally produced products and curio shops of old...

I sometimes travel into London on a Sunday... it is free to park and there is a whole array of interesting things to see on the south bank... people go into London to see this... why can't we recreate this in our local towns... we need to rebuild this thinking of community, get people on the thought process of getting to know local producers of good quality products (and services) and encourage people to use them... but it won't happen unless we get a fundamental shift in the financing of how towns operate... something has to give...

Half the problem is getting to know who are the local producers... I have been trying to build a list of local producers and would have had more success locating the scarlet pimpernel to be honest... this is something that needs fixing and I intend to start an initiative to sort it as it complements other projects I am involved in. There are a good many folk who would willingly buy from local producers of quality vegetables, meats, honeys, jams, eggs, milk, bread... etc. there are some farmers markets emerging which is a great initiative but too few and too rare... we need to be able to access these local businesses buy from them easily and it needs to be convenient... I often travel to Hungary and in Budapest the local Bakery does a roaring trade... with all manner of innovative on premise baked products available throughout the day... amazing... but not here in the UK... when did we lose all of this?

The bottom line is... I don't believe anyone in government is going to change anything... nor local councils or landlords... what we will probably have to do is vote with our feet... start cultivating local business and getting on with making things happen despite them... when they notice that someone has 'moved their cheese' then maybe they'll take notice and come to the table... 

Only when the big chains start to see people moving away and the profits hit will they start to feel the pinch and look at changing things... look at HMV... as they opened new stores the profit per square metre continued to decline... it doesn't take a huge shift to move from a huge profit thank you very much to a situation where someone says... we need to take a look at what is happening here... things are not as they were... 5% might make them look... 10% would make them change... so.... what are we waiting for?


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