The uprising of the digital world, and its undying support from modern generations, has brought the high street to its knees. With the ability to shop now quite literally at our fingertips, high streets have essentially become retailing wastelands, with declining visitor numbers and empty shops. But will this vacuum be filled by innovators offering a more diverse range of experiences and social interaction – and with it a step back in time to the town centres of old?
How shopping became a pastime
The high street as we know it was born out of the Industrial Revolution of the 19th Century. Urbanisation drove people from farming to industrial work and commerce; market stalls evolved into shops, with fixed prices and customer service. Over the next century, the high street evolved into the focal point of every town. High streets became dominated by small independent shops, selling everything from groceries to garments and medicines to meats, accompanied by the soundtrack of human interaction echoing from the cafes, restaurants, pubs and theatres.
This all changed in the 1940s with the introduction of supermarkets. Then came the abolition of resale price maintenance in the 1960s and the first out-of-town shopping centres in the 1970s. These developments transformed the social landscape of the traditional high street and brought about the dominance of large-format retailing that we see today.
We shopped ’til we dropped
In the 1990s, the shopping game was transformed by Amazon.com. Its online ordering was revolutionary, and the company has become a global superpower with net sales of $178 billion in 2017. Following in the wake of Amazon.com, virtually all retailers have an online presence. As a result, the high street has lost much of its appeal. It’s no surprise that, in mid-2017, one in nine shops on the high street lay vacant.
It’s common for high-street ups and downs to coincide with economic conditions. The most recent dip in the retail sector, however, is at odds with the decent health of the UK economy, for several reasons: the increase in the National Living and Minimum Wage; rapidly rising property values; higher business rates; the fall in the pound after the Brexit vote; and retailers having too many stores.
Despite all the above playing a collective part in the high street’s recent undoing, experts still pinpoint the digital revolution as the most important driver. The UK Cards Association revealed that Brits are the undisputed champions of online spending, spending £4,611 on average in 2017.
The recent downturn on the high street has also had a significant impact on jobs. A failure to invest digitally was cited as the main contributor to the collapse of BHS, Jaeger and Austin Reed. Meanwhile, Marks & Spencer, Toys R Us, Maplin, New Look, Prezzo, Jamie’s Italian and Byron have cut jobs and shut stores this year – or shut down altogether. As Richard Fleming from consultancy Alvarez & Marsal said, “[the downfall] is a long-term, straight-line decline, and it’s happening all around Europe.”
A return to the good old days?
As Michele Chang McGrath from strategic consultancy ReD Associates asks, “When access to goods becomes so effortless, what drives customers to invest time and effort in ‘going shopping’?” In other words, shopping has become less experiential and more transactional.
If high streets are to thrive again, they must give people a reason to go. So, might we see a return to the pre-war town centre offering a more diversified mix of shopping, socialising and leisure? That’s the view of Diane Wehrl, marketing and insights director at retail consultancy Springboard, who argues that high streets will become a more leisure-based location with many “experience-based storefronts booming”.
Indeed, we are already seeing some of the big names begin to create an enhanced experience for customers. One example is the Braehead complex in Glasgow, which boasts over 100 stores, numerous restaurants and cafes, but also a range of leisure activities including mini golf, ten-pin bowling, skiing, a cinema, and a sporting arena used for professional tennis and ice-hockey. This is a successful model for high streets to copy, but how much further could this brand extension go? Will we see Tesco trampoline parks? Perhaps Sainsbury’s cinemas? Or what about Costa Coffee Go-Karting? (Release your inner Lewis Hamilton then indulge in an overpriced coffee and cake.) These are definitely interesting concepts worth exploring, which could easily attract customers.
If we take this a step further, then if local authorities and companies take a more ambitious approach to town centre planning, then this could create a virtuous circle for investors. A high street with a variety of social and leisure options is likely to attract higher footfall and higher spending. This in turn would attract more businesses, more consumers and more investors. Of course, a transformation like this isn’t going to happen overnight, which prompts the question, is it worth it? Are mini golf, bowling and laser tag enough to motivate modern generations to pause their video games, take off their headsets and leave their virtual worlds? I would like to think so; after all, humans are still social animals. And if more towns followed the example of Braehead, then they could change our whole outlook on the high street. That really would be a step back in time that’s worth taking.
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