Whatever is happening in our High Streets, it’s happening at an exponential rate. But it is the end, or the start of something new?
Up and down the country, High Street shops are closing. Internet spend has risen to an average of nearly £5,000 per person. Household names have overinvested in property, underinvested in digital, failed to invest in evolution of purpose, and crumbled.
We’ve also reached peak stuff. The High Street hit its dizzying heights in the 60’s, when cheap goods met a time of relative wealth to create a culture of shopping. The next few decades saw people judge status through possessions – it’s only since the downturn a decade ago that this has started to leave a nasty taste. We are starting to be turned off by waste, by the damage that plastics are causing, and quite possibly by the dawning realisation that happiness comes when you step off the wheel and invest time and money in something more interesting. Experience now trumps possessions: any shop has to guarantee its visitors an experience that brings joy and leaves its mark.
The High Street lags behind, in many ways still set up for the world before 2008. In our HQ town of Southwold, rents and rates have shot up and it’s a brave independent retailer who opens up here. They do, and they provide an experience that can’t be matched on the internet, in a lazy multiple or an out of town shopping centre – though you’ll find more chain stores, keen to have brand-hold in a town whose reputation was in many ways built by its authentic market town High Street.
This won’t last. Fashions change, and chain shops will close. The losers then will be the property owners, left with units for which the market can’t pay a price they have come to expect. In time, they’ll sell up or lower the prices and more small businesses will be able to move in. It’s only to be hoped the time of turmoil is short.
So once sense prevails, what is the route?
Everywhere and everything has a purpose. My role at Spring is to help brands and organisations find theirs, often by helping them to better understand the people they work with. For towns and communities, as for brands, that purpose must hold true internally and externally.
That means that in a small town like Southwold, its purpose as a seaside market town has to work for its residents and workers as well as its visitors. For many years it has, because there is enough year-round employment to keep the town fairly busy even out of season. Traditionally the shops on the High Street have catered for this year-round population and, in doing so, given its visitors a sense of coming to a real community, not Disneyland. Recently, however, this has started to feel more precarious.
All towns and communities would benefit from having a clear understanding of their purpose. This clarity would allow them to define their council policies, out-of-town communications and community behaviours. It would give them strength against commercial exploitation, ill-judged policy and maverick investors, and the resilience to weather bad times and keep going.
There’s another influence on our High Streets, however, and the good news is that this one presents an exciting opportunity:
Everywhere in Britain has experienced radical change in communities. Greater mobility really kicked off in the decades after the Second World War, with people increasingly moving away for work. This was a symbol of social progress, enhanced equality and opportunity – and the repercussion of that includes overpriced city housing, increased rural isolation, and greater pressure both on working families and elderly people without nearby support networks.
Recent leaps and bounds of digital connectivity are starting to allow people to move away from these overpriced hubs for work, with increasing numbers of businesses moving out to new locations where commercial and residential property is less expensive. Similarly, more people work alone, with business startups growing by 10% a year – often these micro-businesses are free to set up wherever they want, and so they plump for space and affordability.
This is a natural evolution, which will be generational. Government could help it speed up with improved broadband in the provinces, rates concessions for independent businesses, and identifying other ways to support people’s lives in small communities. The positive impact of functioning communities on the quality of people’s lives would reward any investment, through a reduced burden on health and public services.
It’s entirely possible that, where with one hand digital has destroyed the High Street as a retail destination, it can allow it to be reinvented as a new kind of social hub that caters to younger people’s interest in experience above possessions in a wonderful way. Work spaces, startups and small businesses – whether they are offering retail, services, or just using the space – food and drink outlets, space for leisure and socialising – the High Street can take up its place at the heart of newly functioning communities.