The high street conundrum: can we, and should we, save it?

A troubleshooting task force was launched earlier this month with the aim of saving our troubled high streets. Headed up by Bill Grimsey, the former boss of Wickes and Iceland, a review will be released this summer and will provide an update on a similar report he ran in 2013.

Back then, Grimsey highlighted exorbitant business rates, short-termism in town planning and a lack of funding for economic development as key challenges for our high streets.

Five years on, and the new review has been initiated in the wake of the demise of Toys R Us and Maplin, amongst a backdrop of less than healthy first-quarter sales figures across the retail sector – so not much has changed.

The food and beverage industry isn’t immune from the gloom: Prezzo, Jamie Oliver and Byron have all announced widespread closures. Just a few years ago it seemed like a new branch of these restaurants was popping up on almost a weekly basis. So, what went wrong?

`` One thing’s for sure, high streets need to be an appealing place to visit if businesses are ever going to survive there.``

Identity crisis

Some argue the casual dining chains simply grew too quickly; expanded at such a rate that they became a watered-down version of themselves. Standards slipped and restaurants that once had a clear, well-communicated brand, lost sight of what made them popular in the first place. Throw Brexit into the mix and this makes for a challenging environment to do business.

But this is bad news for independents too, because a mass exodus of chains means less footfall for everyone. The high street conundrum is a complicated one; some argue it isn’t worth saving at all; that it’s better to plough money into businesses which are profitable and simply turn our high streets over to residential developers.

How high streets are used has changed dramatically over the past 30 or so years, with more people choosing to shop for clothes and household items at larger outlets and retail parks. Popping into town is now more often reserved for meeting a friend for coffee or going to the bank (if your bank even still has a local branch). So, are we holding on to a nostalgic image of the high street that doesn’t – or rather couldn’t – exist in the modern world?

Fail to plan…

One thing’s for sure, high streets need to be an appealing place to visit if businesses are ever going to survive there. But interesting independent retailers and one-off restaurants can’t afford the rising costs of running a town-centre business, so our high streets are full of Poundlands and betting shops. It’s an issue that can only really be resolved with policy change.

But, intelligent design and better town planning could play a part too. According to thinktank Urban Pollinators, pedestrian-friendly town centres encourage shoppers to linger for longer and increase the likelihood of return visits. Conversely, business rates penalise town-centre shops and favour out-of-town retail parks, having a hugely detrimental impact on footfall and turning our high streets into post-apocalyptic ghost towns.

Denser areas of shops, bars, cafes and historical buildings are more appealing to visitors and encourage people to linger longer and be sociable. On the other hand, will expensive gift shops and artisan crafts appeal to local people in less-affluent towns that aren’t tourist hotspots? If you stopped and asked a retail-park shopper why they choose to shop out of town, they’d say cheaper goods, more choice and free parking, so the everyday requirements of locals need to be considered to formulate a more realistic and sustainable solution.

The digital high street

Retailers are being told they need to get savvier and think of new ways to offer ‘experiences’ rather than just products – because they can inevitably be bought cheaper on Amazon or eBay. The idea of merging online and offline shopping is bandied about a lot by so-called retail experts. But what does this actually mean – and is it something that the average independent operator can implement?

Retail campaign group Save The High Street thinks so and has championed the idea of a digital, connected high street, where bricks and mortar shops offer the same convenience and seamless transactions as purchasing online and provide incentives to come into store, like free click and collect, or a discount on items bought or collected in person. Many independent shops already have both an online and offline presence, like Retro Revolution, a small vintage boutique in Chasetown, Staffordshire. Its bricks and mortar shop is open four days a week, but it also has an Esty and eBay shop, and sells vinyl records through Discogs Marketplace. A number of other retailers on Chasetown High Street do the same, like Hathaway Refrigeration, which also sells through eBay, and the jewellery shop, Personal Touch, which has an online shop, too. Perhaps this dual approach to business is what has allowed them to survive where others have been less fortunate.

It will be interesting to see what the new Grimsey report can recommend that his 2013 review hasn’t already highlighted. He hopes it will act as a source of evidence and advice for how change can be implemented. If nothing more, he says, it will get the topic back on the agenda. Otherwise, in his words: “we will continue to sleepwalk into the remainder of the 21st century, leaving a legacy of ill-thought-out town centres and high streets to the next generation.”

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