The high street’s demise

Anyone who’s walked down a UK high street recently can’t help but notice the empty retail spaces. This is nothing new, but it is becoming a bigger problem. Businesses can go bust, move address, or just close. When they do, their space needs to be filled. What is new is the number and frequency of this back fill. Big names like House of Fraser, Multiyork, Woolworths, Maplin, and BHS have all gone bust in recent years. Names like Debenhams and Homebase have downsized their store base. Even Marks and Spencer have had issues forcing them to focus less on clothes and more on food.

The reasons for these changes are many and varied: poor strategy, financial mismanagement, high business rates, online competition are some. But what is the answer to saving our high street? Perhaps the question we should be asking is, “Is it even worth trying to?”

It is clear that the character of our high street’s is changing. There are, and will continue to be, less large stores. This has a known on effect on smaller stores, with the domino effect of some of those going out of business. The general consensus seems to be change the way the shopping experience. Make it more about the social aspect of meeting for a chat over a coffee or going to see a film.

This may work for a time, but will it work in the longer term. What’s interesting is that this idea is nothing new. Roll the clock back 60 years and generations of young children went to Saturday morning pictures, whilst their Mum went shopping. Watching grainy old black and white westerns may not cut the mustard to young ones these days, but if the right films were available it could.

But here’s my problem. It’s nearly 2020, not 1960. We’re a discerning lot, especially kids. They don’t want to watch films every Saturday. Likewise we adults don’t want to have to always go shopping on Saturday morning or go to church on Sunday. That’s too much like work! No we want flexibility and variety. We want to have choice about what we do and when we do it. So how is the high street going to cop with that? Yes out of town leisure parks can help, but they’re not located near the high street.

So back to my original question. Why should we bother trying to save the high street? By trying to save it, are we papering over the cracks for the problem to reappear in 10-20 years time? Is the elephant in the room - online shopping - the death knell that will see our high street’s turn into a retail desert?  Maybe the answer is to let the high street die. Businesses would have to adapt, but they already do that on a daily basis if they want to continue to trade.

I’m playing devil’s advocate here. As someone who grew up in an era of half day shopping on Wednesdays and nothing open on Sundays, a lot of retail change has occurred in my lifetime. The challenges faced in the retail sector today are different, and to be honest most retailers don’t seem to have reacted well to them. OK there are some pressures like business rates that are outside their control, but that’s not the whole picture.

Would I be sad to see the high streets disappear? Yes, but not for very long. We all adapt and change our routines every day, so why should going shopping be any different. We’d probably do even more online shopping. We’d drive to more out of town shopping malls / leisure spaces. And just think of what you could do with all that empty high street space. Housing is in short supply, so why not build more houses?

It may be a simplistic argument, but I figured it’s worth asking.