Do high streets still need shops?

“Where is our high street going?” That was the main question for the panel at the Battle of Ideas Festival in the suitably Orwellian location of the Barbican, London.

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Tom Ironside, George MacDonald, Eva Pascoe and Susan Steed along with chair Para Mullan debated the position of our high streets today, what the current trends are and what can be done to prevent their collapse in the era of Amazon.

image3Tom Ironside opened up with an observation on the UK’s high streets, which is that over 60% of the British economy is retail-based (*). Retailers need to adapt to the future and take into account that a decreasing amount (an estimated 40%) of all retail items are sold in physical shops. Ironside called for a structural transformation in retail to accommodate consumer behaviour and take into account the fact that expectations have changed in the past 10 years. The evolution of the internet and its huge involvement in people’s lives and shopping habits has had a seismic effect on books, music, games, lingerie, among other sectors, and this should be taken into account when talking about the British high street’s retail businesses.

Eva Pascoe noted that, in order to understand and manage the high street better, we need more urban data, as according to a 2013 report (The Grimsey Review) a third of vacancies on the high street have been empty for over three years. Councils often are not aware of those long-term trends and don’t respond fast enough to compulsory purchase orders. In addition, those long-term boarded-up shops are highly likely to be owned by our own pension funds and asset managers, who simply refuse to lower the rents to realistic levels, and only care about the value of the property in the long-term. The fact that boarded-up shops may increase crime in the area and lead to lower rents for the neighbouring shops is simply not their concern.

With this in mind, data-gathering tools like urban sensors should be given back to the community and a plan should be developed using high street data to give direction to estate planners and large, often all too absent, landlords.

The main challenge is the fact that shoppers have shifted their purchasing habits online rather than stay loyal to the high street due to convenience and efficiency, alongside issues such as not having to pay business tax rates. Lack of parking in the high street areas is also a factor that does not help to address this already difficult trend. However, some cities are trying to make moves towards tackling this issue by coming at it from another angle.

The Mayor of Bristol, for example, in order to tackle the need for car parking, switched the city centre to a biking area so people can park their bikes and use them around town. However, the problem with this, as noted by Eva, was that the majority of shoppers on the high street are female, usually mothers, which puts biking out of the question as taking the kids into town and coming back with bags of shopping would be a nightmare. Cyclists account for a minimal presence amongst high street shoppers and increasing biking racks, although great in theory, would do nothing to support the key mums and elderly shopping demographics.

Another point, raised by Susan Steed, was that with a high street providing essential local services there is potential for growing a bigger local supply chain, thus keeping jobs and services local and establishing a community and a line of work for local people. In addition, a member of the audience raised the point that shopping centres offer the convenience of a wide variety of shops and services all being available in one place (with free parking included), but that this feeds into the subject of globalisation, thus encouraging chains. Retail parks have on average much lower numbers of empty shops, as people simply love the convenience of easy and free parking.

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In response to this, Steed said that the inclusion of activities and education into high streets would draw people to them, as it would provide a less ‘clone-town’ look, a less globalised and impersonal feel and a more personal aspect to the shopping experience.

George MacDonald’s response was that, in order for high streets to catch up with big retailers like Amazon, shops should not only take advantage of the convenience of services like Click + Collect but also play their best card, which is exclusivity. Offer products that are special and exclusive to the locals that you are trying to sell to and you will be bringing the personal touch that the automated click, click and click system of Amazon doesn’t have.

Eva reminded us that it is important to invest in urban data as well as protect personal privacy. People will not provide personal information harvested from their mobile phones unless it is safe to do so, which means that before any consumer’s data is processed or even collected its protection and anonymisation should be a priority.

To sum up, the panel agreed that there is a future for high streets as long as better data is gathered. In addition, councils should be enabled to act on improved knowledge, increase parking, cut business rates and support ‘local’ aspects to draw people in. With the new devolved business rates, it will be in a community’s hand to claim better use of the money obtained. This will, in turn, create happy communities of engaged people, who are participating in their local area planning in an active way, instead of delegating what happens on their doorsteps to faceless bureaucrats in their local councils. Urban data for the people!

 

by Karolina Janicka