THE BLOG

The Convenience of the High Street

20/05/2013 16:31 BST | Updated 17/07/2013 10:12 BST

Dave. We all know Dave is associated with repeating what has gone before. At least, that's the TV channel. What of PM 'Dave' Cameron?

It seems increasingly likely that the government will soon distance itself from the Portas Pilot project ... and vice versa. It has already created another QUANGO, the High Street Forum - and those in the retail sector are waiting to see what happens next.

Here's the rub ...

We are all creatures of habit. When I started working in the shopping centre industry more than 20 years ago, I soon learnt that shoppers are, by their very nature, habitual. We all are. We shop locally for convenience - the corner shop would not exist without that engrained habit. The birth and growth of the petrol station store is testament to our demand for easy shopping where we need/expect it most. We shop regionally for choice. Over two decades, this has become increasingly so as High Streets have blurred into what many see as Clones - and larger, regional retail destinations have sold themselves on 'choice'.

In the 1970s and '80s, Supermarkets gave us choice. They really did. What at one time was real choice and retail innovation - Strawberries in winter, books at Supermarkets or exotic vegetables - has become the norm. So retailers now just battle over price. What is left with which to 'wow' customers? We all know that pretty pictures of farmers on their walls mean sweet FA. And the more they battle on price, the less they'll care about service, standards .. or ingredients of their burgers ... because their customers are addicted. An entire generation (or more) has forgotten how to 'shop'.

Shoppers are brainwashed into thinking that the giant out-of-town retailers decision to sell all that they do is still giving us choice. The 'habit' has become an 'addiction' ... or has it?

Beyond 'local' and 'regional', the final 'choice' for shoppers was always a 'favourite place' ... a one-off where you'd go almost regardless of distance or price. It would be a choice that would feed other habits - be they food, fashion or pastimes. So perhaps that provides the chink in the armour? We all have more time to 'shop around' - online or otherwise. Perhaps High Streets can pick up the baton and lay claim to be the shoppers' 'favourite place'? I always saw my role as trying to break shoppers' habits. Tough nuts to crack an' all that. But shoppers' habits haven't really changed. The shops have.

And what about the role played by government? Councils have screwed communities with disastrous planning policies subsidising out-of-town developments with little or no thought as to how such development would a) affect traditional High Streets or b) lead to an ever decreasing spiral of property value as shoppers, those with cash in their pockets, were sucked away from town centres.

And whilst the same inept councils were wooed by Supermarkets promises of money for supposed improvements in infrastructure ... we saw the rise and rise of e-commerce. A double whammy of epic proportions and consequences.

Why do Governments - local or national - think they can 'fix' anythng? I recall press shots of successive politicians claiming they'd deliver urban regeneration over the last 3-4 decades. Maggie T on Teeside. Tarzan Heseltine on Merseyside. Tony Blair in Birmingham. And now Dave alongside Mary P and others saying it is time to 'Save The High Street'. Really?

That task is a relatively simple one. It doesn't take Governments (local, regional, national or quasi). It takes shoppers demanding and supporting the shops they want at a local level. The horse meat and food labelling debacle is another step on the way. What High Streets need to do now is listen to shoppers and unite to win them back. Wow shoppers with their service, standards and ingredients to distance themselves from the 'untrustworthy' Supermarkets.

We have had almost 30 years of Strawberries in December and Mange Tout shipped in from some African state just because it happens to deliver the highest profit margin.

A vital issue for me with the Portas Pilots, and all high street regeneration, is communication and subsequently I set up DestinationCMS back in 2007 and created the Mall-to-Mobile product to put an end to websites that didn't serve a purpose in today's technological developed society. We found that almost every shopping centre in the UK didn't have a website that worked properly across both desktop PCs, tablets and mobile phones. Mall-to-Mobile has put an end to that, offering an integrated website for shopping centres to ensure ease of consumer communication.

Just as previous governments' 'urban regeneration' schemes fell by the wayside, so too will the Portas Pilots. I was proud to be chosen as a Mentor for the Pilots. Months down the line, not a single call from a single Pilot project. And I fear the High Street Forum will also soon become another headline in the press file. But with the correct steps, which I will discuss in future posts, we can rebuild the high street.

I'd encourage Dave not to repeat the mistakes of the former inhabitants of Number 10 (or 11). Don't repeat the banalities of trying to win headlines without any serious desire to make a positive change. Don't repeat claims that you want to save the High Street, it just needs to be done.

Change will come if communities tune in and act independently. It can be done. It is being done by some.

Rest assured, in ten years time, Dave won't be in Number 10.

As for Mary? I expect she'll be on Dave.