Thursday 14 February 2013

The High Street Is Not Broken - It's A Symptom

On a recent day off I visited a little town not far from me. It was a town with a sizable high street: plenty of space for shops, lots of units that in prior visits had lots of retailers in place. But those visits were about 15 months ago and things have most definitely changed in the locale.

This is an experience many probably encounter frequently. Going to a town or village that appeared to be thriving, only to return a year or so further into an economic downturn to see it becoming ever increasingly boarded up.

More and more units for let.

And as we encounter these things, a number of reactions might come to mind: what has happened to the shop? What about the owners? What about the employees?

And also: why has this happened?

No doubt many businesses close because of competition from bigger brands, or indeed the dreaded online competition. Many may struggle due to a lack of diversification, many may struggle because of bad market research, many may struggle because many customers want a bargain, and will go the extra mile to get one.

And yet we have an idyll of the old fashioned high street full of independent retailers.

A few years ago, Alnwick in Northumberland, won a US competition about the best high street, and one of the major factors why it won, was the diversity of independent retailers.

In this little town I visited, there was a Blockbuster which was closing down.

I didn't know Blockbuster still existed.

With Sky, NetFlixs, LoveFilm, any other amount streaming (illegal and legal) and online options, I can understand why this business model is struggling.

Recently we witnessed the struggles of Jessops. I always had the impression that Jessops had become something of a unofficial "try before you buy online place". Test the camera you want, source it online and save yourself a packet.

And then there was HMV, who seem to have been plucked from the claws of retail death. There were whimsical comments about the end of music shops on the high street. With out any kind of irony, or reference to the emergence of the High Street Music Chains (HMV, Virgin Megastores, Our Price) that were themselves the death bell for so many independent record shops.

So what are we to make of all this?

I think the first thing, is to feel genuinely gutted for those affected, those whose income and dreams have been affected, those who are now looking for work, or, like Katie in the Blockbusters I visited - waiting to find out when the shop will close / leaving date, so she can apply for a new job to start after Blockbusters has closed.

The second thing: surely is to recognise that while online businesses use whatever means of avoiding taxes, the "playing field" will be even more uneven.

The third thing to realise is that rather than seeing the demise of the high street as a cultural catastrophe, we must start to accept that it is the end result of the endemic culture of consumerist capitalism in which we live. We want cheaper and we want better and we want it now.

That's something many small retailers will struggle to do: compete with the online or high street giant who buys products more cheaply and sells them more cheaply.

It seems that one way around this dilemma is to establish the activity of shopping as a lifestyle choice. Make the shopping experience pleasant, "boutique-y" and desirable. But even that will only get a business so far.

Ultimately, the decline of independent high street retailers, (and indeed slow moving high street chains, and indeed, out-moded high street chains) will continue. And it will continue to happen in a culture which wants more for less.

Now I'm not saying we should abandon capitalism or even consumerism. All I'm advocating (in this post at least), is the recognition that it is us, we the consumer who have a major stake in controlling the destiny of the high street. But that with that comes a caveat: the destiny of the high street will not be radically changed by the few: it will need a mass-movement of retail-habit-change.

A small number of people may be able to sustain the local organic grocer, or record shop but more must be done if we want to save the high street.

Which leads us to the heart of the matter: do we want to save the high street?

I do. I've lived in a community where the local shop, the post office, the pubs and the other amenities have closed, and its down heartening, it dissolves social cohesion, it paints a picture of "broken window syndrome" and it widens the emotional gap between people and the places that they live.

But the challenge is there and it is real: yes, it is fantastic to "go indie" when buying coffee, or books, or vinyl, but the real cost of saving the high street (let alone an indie high street)  is not only moral and ethical: but monetary as well.

If we are to save the high street we will need to spend more on products than we probably do at present. And in hard financial times, with people from all walks of life struggling, that is a hard challenge.

It's not enough for one segment of society to go indie. The challenge is for every consumer in the country.

And no, I do not write as one who only shops local and independent: I do when it comes to certain things, but actually given what I am trained to expect to get back from the money I receive in my bank each month: this would mean a huge re-evaluation of those things. And that's hard to do with an overdraft. (This maybe a cop-out, I do my "bit", but actually, deep down, I recognise that it's not enough).

So really, is the high street broken? No in and of its self. The high street is a symptom of a bigger problem, and its a problem deeply entrenched in our consumer-psyche's. While we live with the expectations we have: I'm not sure we can expect to see the high street recover.

Glocal consumerism and the immediacy of the online experience has meant that I can be involved with the making of an album by one of my favourite independent artistes by crowd funding. But it's also meant that my mangoes imported from a far away land can be delivered to my door by someone in a van with a recognisable uniform.

Before we look for a solution: we must see the scope of the problem for what it is.

But I do believe in resurrection. Resurrection of communities, resurrection from death, resurrection for high streets, resurrection for societal ethics.

And resurrection is what we're looking at here. Not resuscitation: this old system can have life blown back into it time and time again, but in so many ways it is not sustainable with the ethic that many of us carry.

Let's look to resurrection and see what might happen.


Anonymous said...

Interesting post Tim. Not sure retail is the only answer for the demise of the high street. Like you, I see the importance of the high street for developing social cohesion, but might there be other sorts of convivial space, like circus, games areas etc etc?

BeatLiturgist said...

There's always the Empty Shop arts initiatives, great for building community and confidence.

But at its heart, is the abyss that was the high street and the need to rethink difficult things.

I read yesterday that 60percent of retail spending (not including online) now takes place in supermarkets....