TIME TO SAY GOODBYE

No, I am not giving up on these blogs (fortunately or unfortunately – depending on your point of view). I am using the title of a famous song most notably recorded by Andrea Bocelli and Sarah Brightman, to capture some thoughts on the continued debate over the future of the high street in the United Kingdom. For those of you outside of the UK, I would ask you to reflect on the standard of retailing that exists in the prime areas of your city or town.

As we know from our discussion on the high street in chapter eight of the book, the high street in many cities and town has undergone major decline over the past couple of decades. Some commentators argue that it is irreversible and a reflection of the changing patterns of shopping behaviour and preferences. Others think that certain initiatives can inject a major improvement and draw shoppers in their droves back to these areas.

I was enthused to reflect on this aspect of retailing when I read of yet another organisation that has been set up to “rejuvenate the high street”. This new body is called “SaveTheHighStreet.org” and has been established by organisations who rejoice in titles such as Future High Street Forum, Tech City UK and google Digital Garage”.

We have seen many such initiatives and projects in the UK over the past ten years or so. As mentioned in chapter eight of the book, Mary Portas, a well-known retail expert and commentator was commissioned by the government to undertake a major review of the state of play with high street locations. She generated a wide range of recommendations; some of which were acted upon by the government and others which were dismissed as the product of someone who had an agenda and used the investigation to put forward her own idiosyncratic views and opinions.

Regardless of how you might view Mary Portas, she highlighted practical areas which contributed in no small measure to the decline of the high street. These included: the difficulties and costs of parking for shoppers in these areas, the high business rate charges, the high rents associated with acquiring premises, the run-down nature of such areas and the high levels of anti-social behaviour in town and city centres – particularly at night. When combined, these factors have led to a negative picture of the high street. Unfortunately for retailers such an uninviting and intimidating environment has led to a fall-off in shoppers.

It is not just the environment surrounding the high street and prime city centre locations. We have witnessed the inexorable march to the tune of online shopping. As discussed in previous blogs, retailers – particularly the large ones, have invested heavily in complementary online websites in an attempt to develop an omni – channel strategy.

Put simply, many city centre, high-street locations are not the most attractive places to be during the day or at night. Dilapidated buildings, charity shops, beggars, lousy buskers and the ever-present danger of being “jumped on” by chuggers (people representing charities who are desperate to get you to sign up) can at best be intimidating and at worst totally off-putting to potential shoppers. Most city centres and high streets are reporting a decline of around ten per cent in the number of visitors to such locations in the previous year in the United Kingdom. Shops are closing every day.

To be fair this decline cannot be fully explained by the unattractive nature of such locations. The stalling economy, doubts over Brexit and a lack of growth in real incomes also have contributed in no small manner to this position.

The ever-present high costs associated with locating in the high street are deeply off-putting to retailers. In the United Kingdom also contribute significantly to the decline of the high street.

Large retailers tend to require large box locations; something which many high street locations cannot provide due to their traditional designs. The move to out-of-town locations, where retailers can build or lease such sites is more popular.

Mary Portas advocated a broader view of what can be done with the high street. Part of her recommendations revolved around a need to make such locations more popular to visit in terms of treating them as an entertainment hub. Street markets, music, themed festivals, encouraging local artisan producers to operate there and more imaginative use of pop-up outlets appeared in her report.

Certainly such initiatives would appear to address some of the negative perceptions that we highlighted in earlier paragraphs. They work on the principle that such events and activities act as a magnet for drawing people into such locations. The pleasant and “community” atmosphere can encourage repeat visits and stimulate people to make purchases from an eclectic group of varied retailers.

Have a check in your own city or town to see if any such initiatives are taking place? If you are visiting other parts of the world, reflect on what is on offer in central locations in such cities.

So, what are we to make of these developments and trends? In my view the move to treating high street locations as centres of entertainment and fun provides a point of difference that is not easily replicated at out-of-town locations or online. Quirky, traditional, artisan-type retailing offers choice to shoppers in a more positive environment. Regular theme-based events e.g. around Christmas, Halloween and Easter, or around sporting events, can generate a community-driven atmosphere that can build up a regular coterie of loyal shoppers.

However this has to be juxtaposed against the rapacious, greedy nature of local authorities and government. In the United Kingdom, local bodies are encouraged to generate their own income as central government cuts back on investing in the city centres. To be fair, local authorities have to seek ways of generating income. Business rates and parking charges are typical sources of “easy” revenue. However there is a “bigger picture”. If these charges are too high, retailers will struggle to survive and close. Shoppers will go elsewhere in the face of unsustainable parking charges and fines.

A balance has to be achieved. More far-seeing local bodies and authorities should recognise that a vibrant high street will generate more income for everyone in the longer-term than through the punitive charges they currently impose in many cases. Any short-term financial gain in my view is tempered by the long-term damage that high costs does to the sustainability of such locations.

As we noted in chapter eight, online shopping will continue to grow. However many shoppers also value the experiential aspect of the shopping task. While we will continue to witness a high degree of “churn” in terms of retailers moving in and out of the high street, initiatives such as those highlighted earlier will help to provide a vibrancy to the high street that is missing in many cities and towns.

Reverting back to my opening paragraphs in this blog, Savethehighstreet.org also intends to provide help and support to the small independent retailers in terms of coping with and using social media strategies as well as giving guidance on the issue of data collection and management on their respective shopping databases. In other words it will introduce them to some of the tools and techniques that have been adopted by the large retailers. This form of mentoring, while unlikely to make major inroads into the problem, should nevertheless help to establish some retailers on the high street.

Maybe it is too soon to say goodbye. I am willing to suspend my scepticism and cynicism and see if these initiatives will have an impact.

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