Since the beginning of the recession, a high number of retail casualties have resulted in empty buildings filling up our high streets.
In 2008, Woolworths was the first of the big names to fall, and many smaller chains suffered after that. Jane Norman, Kookai, Barratts, Peacocks, Threshers, Clinton Cards, Birthdays, Sony Centres, among many others followed Woolworths into administration.
In the past month, Comet, Jessops, HMV and Blockbuster have all joined them – so what next for our ailing high street? Many readers have written to the Huffington Post UK upset at their local community becoming full of fast food eateries, betting shops, pound stores and charity shops where once there was a vibrant atmosphere. Is this the future for the UK's town centres?
The end of the retail era
Perhaps the biggest shift for which most town planners are preparing is a shift away from a retail focus for our high streets.
Retail guru Mary Portas wrote a report into the future of British high streets for the government's consideration in 2011, and while its suggestions were solid for shop owners, the report received criticism for being too focused on retail being the saviour of our high streets.
From this year, many are predicting a rise in other services on our high streets; diagnostic medical centres, police services in our post offices, libraries acting as community centres for all manner of purposes – this will be the year where the high street stops being all about shopping and becomes more about a sense of community.
Indeed, the Royal Town Planning Institute entered its views for the Future of London's town centres call for evidence earlier this month and noted: "Town centres should look to be renewed via the development of what the commission terms 'lifetime neighbourhoods' – e.g. that town centres become the main locations for delivery of public as well as private services such as education, health, civic, voluntary... "
Josef Hargrave, a member of Arup's foresight and innovation team, told the Huffington Post UK: "There needs to be a move away from thinking high streets are just for shopping. There's already talk about a bit of a shift of understanding, where by the high street becomes a community centre.
"Future gazing workshops on the NHS are already discussing having community diagnosis centres for non-serious medical concerns, particularly with an ageing population on the horizon."
David Jeevendrampillai, part of a team at UCL which looks at building Adaptable Suburbs, agrees. Trained as an anthropologist, Jeevendrampillai studies the importance developing a purpose for the high street and the wider community as a whole.
"People want a healthy, vibrant local economy, but what we're seeing is that lots of those sorts of businesses are already further away from the high street. Most small businesses are run from the home and built on networks of trust that go beyond the physical nature of the high street," he said.
Diagnostics services could be offered on our high streets, along side other public services
“Lots of businesses operate out of their homes, but there's a big gap to get them onto the high street. A lot of good work is being done by unpaid community volunteers to bring creative, vibrant atmospheres back to our towns. Most of these volunteers don’t even own local businesses; they just want their area to be a nice place to live. Councils should take more notice of them, instead of sitting in static meetings."
There is also evidence to suggest that good planning for bringing public services into town centres could have positive effects on mental health and wellbeing of individuals, as well as promoting community cohesion.
Councils are often asked to help do their bit by encouraging affordable rents and offering sustainable town planning – but in a market where a fast buck wins over long-term investment this could be hard.
"Those high streets that are full of pound shops and kebab houses are down to bad planning", said Hargrave. "It's hard though. Once you're on a downward spiral of only granting licenses to those stores it needs a big intervention to turn an area around, and that means a lot of capital investment.
A nostalgic idea? Or a myth?
UCL’s Professor Laura Vaughan told the Huffington Post UK that she believed the current call for the death of the high street was based on an idea of a high street which for many never really existed.
"We've been studying four outer London cases from the 1860s onwards and find that change and continuity are both part of the story of town centres," she explained.
"Every generation comes out with a statement forecasting the 'death' of the high street and is proven to be wrong. We no longer visit the high street on foot to shop at the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker, but we do still make local trips on foot, bicycle and car to the post office, library, greengrocer, nursery, bike repair shop and so on."
What makes some high streets able to survive while others are less resilient is less well understood, but there are similarities which these towns have.
Towns that survive are not dependent solely on local people coming in every day to visit the shops; are situated within a network that feeds movement through and to the locations, and that movement isn't driven by just shopping, but also work, commuting to get elsewhere, education establishments, leisure facilities and so on.
So, is retail dead?
No. Far from it in fact, but it does need to adapt to stay alive, and to encourage shoppers back to the high street.
Making the stores efficient is key. Arup's Hargrave pointed to Regent Street in London as an example of improved efficiency leading to a vibrant shopping area. The Crown Estate recognised that there was too much traffic running along and stopping along Regent St, and so it called on all of the shops to share one logistics fleet.
London's Regent Street
Now, all of the excess stock is kept in Enfield, and deliveries come through one lorry that serves the whole street. This has two positive effects – the streets aren't constantly blocked with lorries – in fact deliveries have been reduced by 80% as a result – and secondly the store-owners get more space in their buildings freed up, as there's no need to store extra stock on site. This means the shopping experience is improved for the customer, enticing them to come back.
Outside of efficiencies, Hargrave recommends improving the in-store experience by, for example, offering goods and services that don't appear online.
"Selfridges' 'No Noise' zone is a nice innovation; granted it's not something everyone has the space to do, but it provides a nice experience for the customer," he said.
Stores should embrace technology too – the forward thinking retailers are creating 'living labs' where the physical stores have sensors to record how customers behave.
For clothing retailers for example, sensors can detect which items are paired with others, which could give you a heads up on how customers would like to see items displayed. Data on how long customers spend in each section of your store can also be analysed to provide a better customer experience.
And in a futuristic twist, telecoms giant Telefonica is beginning to take data from its mobile customers' data usage and planning to sell the information along to retailers to help them personalise their stores to coincide with the type of person who's walking past them.
"If you know that at 4pm a high number of older ladies pass your shop on their way to or from something, you could offer something in the window which appeals to that demographic," Hargrave explained.
“Or if you know a bunch of builders are working on a site around the corner, if you're in food retail you could put on a 'builders' special' of bacon butties and tea for when they're on the way to work." By using this data, physical stores can compete with the online ecosystem.
Fast forward to 2023 and beyond, and what could our high streets feature? Again, technology leads the way – and for Josef Hargrave, innovations like 3D printing could be used to great effect on the high street, especially for retailers.
"Just imagine, you walk into a store, get your body scanned, and get tailor made clothing designed to fit you exactly using a 3D printer – that's something you’d go to the high street for," he said.
Richard Coleman, director of SME at Zurich worked alongside best-selling science-fiction writer Alastair Reynolds at a recent event for SMEs.
From the workshops they ran he suggests the high streets will exist in both physical and digital spaces at the same time, a sort of hybrid high street.
"An SME operating without a fixed location could rent an empty property on a street which it then fills with virtual products and services," he offered.
Could trying on clothes become a thing of the past?
"However, in the far future, SMEs could look to share retail space: if the shop staff and contents are virtual, then multiple shop occupancies could happen at the same time.
"This may mean that customers could walk into almost any kind of store, depending on their augmented reality preferences. There could be a hundred customers in the empty shop at one time, all experiencing different consumer environments."
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