Last week's news that stricken high street giant HMV has been rescued will be a relief to many, not least those whose jobs will be saved by the deal. But the fundamental challenges facing our high streets remain.
HMV is just one of a series of large chains that have endured financial crisis, and have either significantly downsized or disappeared altogether in recent years. Woolworths, JJB Sports, electrical chain Comet, bookshop Borders and rival music chains Virgin (Zavvi) and Tower have all vanished from the landscape.
In many respects, the decline of high street activity reflects the sluggish state of the economy as a whole. However, the challenges faced by these large retail chains go beyond the effects of prolonged recession. They are principally driven by new consumption habits, created by rapid technological change and the rise of internet shopping. The scale of this change is illustrated by figures released by the OECD last year, which highlighted that six out of ten British adults use the internet to buy products such as food, clothing, music or holidays - which is twice the average of the OECD's 34 member states, which include the US, Germany, Australia and France.
It is important that town planners and retailers understand the implications of these shifting consumption patterns, and the changing relationship between 'online' and 'instore' browsing or shopping. Technology firms such as Google and Cisco point to the opportunities for improving service quality that increased smartphone use provides those retailers that embrace the technology, for example by sharing their stock availability to allow customers to identify outlets that have items they specifically want, or by providing them with the connectivity needed instore to search for nearby goods and services while on the high street itself.
But this is only part of the story. The decline of big brands and retail chains on our high streets is also intrinsically linked to shifting patterns of economic activity within our cities. Centre for Cities research shows that even some cities that enjoyed net employment growth prior to recession, such as Preston and Sunderland, nevertheless experienced decline within their city centre economies during this period as jobs were increasingly located outside of the urban core.
This is problematic for such places, as centres that are abandoned by office based businesses are likely to be the first to see their high streets empty. This has the potential to create a vicious cycle, as the attractiveness of those centres declines and employers are put off from locating there. By contrast, high density centres with significant daytime office employment help increase footfall on the high street during the day and into the evening. The more densely occupied city centres are, the busier they will be, extending the size of the market that occupants of the high street can reach.
It is, therefore, critical that as the debate about the future of our high streets progresses, we move beyond a purely retail focus, and instead think in terms of the broader role that they play in our local economies. If we are to revitalise our high streets in an age of digital consumption, then policymakers must act to attract jobs back to our city centres. Only then will we be able to shape their future, rather than hoping we can turn the clock back to a previous era that, despite HMV's rescue, shows no signs of returning.
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