Death of the High Street?

Retail is going through tough times. But it’s a survivor…

Every week it seems another big-name retailer is either in trouble or going under. Toys ‘R’ Us. Claire’s Accessories. Maplins. BHS. Jaeger. Jones Bootmaker. Commentators point to online shopping as the source of the high street’s woes. We now shop online for every kind of commodity from food to clothing to cameras. How can a business that needs to pay high street rents and staff wages hope to compete? And if they can’t, what’s going to happen to our towns and cities?

Yes, you can blame Amazon for the slump in shopping mall traffic (Donald Trump does, but don’t let that put you off). But Amazon is only giving people what they want. Why get in a car, drive, park, and visit a store in the hope they’ll have the item you need in stock, when you can make your selection online, knowing that the warehouse has every size and every colour? In many UK towns the crisis in retailing has turned town centres into a dystopian scene of betting shops, charity shops, takeaways and boarded-up frontages. According to UK retail guru Mary Portas, ‘we have sacrificed communities for convenience’.

For older readers, this will have a familiar echo. The first true ‘supermarket’ dates to the 1930s, but it wasn’t until the post-war years that the idea of a one-stop shop for meat, fruit, veg and household essentials caught on. Cheaper prices and greater convenience drove a lot of independent butchers, greengrocers, fishmongers and bakeries out of business. The supermarket was accused of killing the high street. Then came hypermarkets and out-of-town malls, ironically killing off some of the smaller supermarkets.

But failing businesses have always been with us. Towns evolve to meet our changing needs. We don’t ride horses any more, so that’s the blacksmith gone. Wearing the skin of dead animals isn’t as popular as it was, so that’s why you don’t see many furriers. Fewer people darn and mend and make clothes now, so no more haberdashers. Life goes on; we may wax nostalgic about how things were but today we have a world (literally) of choice that our parents and grandparents would have envied.

There are signs that some shopping centres are focusing on what online can’t do, with successful results. A recent Guardian article highlighted Bishy Road in York where nearly every shop was a local, independent business, offering something you couldn’t find elsewhere. Artisan ice creams, bakeries that bake fresh bread and cakes on the premises, a cycle shop, a delicatessen, a decent pub, a specialist kitchenware shop. Bishy Road is bucking the trend of decline – it’s what planners call a ‘sticky’ location. Somewhere you’d want to pass the time, rather than pass through.

Maybe online and out of town will increasingly be where we shop for the known quantities, the everyday. And perhaps our towns and living spaces will become where we go to be surprised and delighted by the unusual, the unique and the freshly-made. Take off the rose-tinted spectacles and you’d have to concede that the shopping experience of the recent past hasn’t been very inspiring, with the same names and national brands in every town. If the so-called ‘death of the high street’ means fewer ailing national chains and more independent local stores, we’re all in favour.