Its time to rethink the high street


Another slow year for retail

Once again, shopping before and after Christmas this year has taken place from the comfort of my sofa with a hot mug of tea, thumbing through customer reviews for products with well-known online retailers. At the end of another year that has seen significant change for high street retailers, my visits to the centre of our towns and cities is no longer motivated by retail bargains.

Before Christmas week I did venture into Shrewsbury high street. I spent an enjoyable couple of hours feeling a little nostalgic as I wandered amongst the Christmas crowds and buskers, wrapped up warm and explored what remains of the large departments stores. It certainly felt festive, it was busy and it took me back to pre-web times of visits to town growing up with my family and friends.

Christmas music and lights alongside hot food and spiced latte made the whole experience quite enjoyable.  Thoroughly infused with the spirit of Christmas, as soon as I returned home, I made a pot of tea, logged into my favourite online retailers and complete my Christmas shopping.

During those two hours in the town centre, my spend totalled about 15 pounds on coffee and lunch. Within minutes of arriving home however, I had more than trebled that spend on a few Christmas gifts from amazon.

Functional vs Experiential

It is no surprise that the town centre, or the high street of the future is becoming less focussed as a retail destination. For me that visit into Shrewsbury was largely about soaking up the Christmas lights, sounds and festivities, finding some interesting food, meeting other people and experiencing a social event. 

Most things that I saw in the stores were cheaper and more convenient to have delivered from an online source.  Retail has become increasingly functional and less experiential and that may be more about me than the health of our retailers and the way others make purchases, but it’s clear to all that something is changing, not just on the high street, but in a world of greater social awareness and responsibility maybe we should expect an overall downward trend in consumption.

Re-invent the High Street

Industry experts and futurists have been speculating for some time on the future of the high street. Many of them agree on a few things, that in order for the high street to remain relevant, it needs to:

  1.  rethink its role as a social and community destination
  2. attract greater numbers through reliable, cheaper transport links
  3. address the local needs for convenience

I guess that my question is, does the high street need to remain relevant for retail?  

From a retail perspective there are far more opportunities for growth through digital channels.  The recent trend for checkout-free stores is a mechanism to increase the speed and convenience of purchase from a physical location, but I am not convinced that it will survive beyond the novelty phase and may be dropped by the sophisticated consumer for high value goods, relatively quickly.  Maybe it will persist for consumables and impulse purchases or become the standard high street retail option for local communities who need convenience and low value purchases on their doorstep. 

Use of technology such as augmented reality and artificial intelligence may make the shopping experience a little more immersive and personalised, but as these technologies become mainstream and grow in use within other parts of our life, they will have greater relevance in enhancing the home shopping experience from the consumers own virtual reality technology than the on-location experience.

From a social aspect the high street can offer a centralised community destination and convenience for local communities to purchase necessities but with an increased demand for tailored, personalised experiences across many aspects of our life, I do wonder if a trend towards segmented, themed and personalised social experiences will render the increasingly homogenised high street even more irrelevant for tomorrows consumer.

Imaginative, not nostalgic

Re-thinking the high street’s role in our future may mean breaking away from the desire to re-capture its time as the heart of a community or the assumption that it must be retail focused. I accept that there will continue to be a need for necessities and convenience goods to support local needs but, in general, I suggest that retailers have had their time on the high street.  

I believe that we should be more imaginative and less nostalgic. If we want to avoid a handful of mini-revivals then we must question whether the high street needs a revival at all. Perhaps there is more appropriate use for these spaces that support local community needs but does not primarily focus on providing retail variety, fashion outlets and services that are more convenient to provide online.

Does a centralised retail destination on our high streets make sense, increasing transportation demands into what is a relatively confined area for an expanding population? Or, are we better served with a more de-centralised variety of ultra-local community and online delivery options?  If so, then we need to consider how best to regenerate and reuse these centrally located spaces for higher value purposes (not necessarily commercial ventures) and allow retailers to embrace a different future outside of the high street. 

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