The future of our high streets

The latest review into the future of the high street ‘Beyond Retail’ follows fast on a report published in September 2013  called  ‘The Vanishing High Street by the veteran retailer Bill Grimsey. His report  was accompanied by heated disagreement with his predecessor Mary Portas,  author of the  Portas Review despite the fact that in many  cases, their views converge.

As one leading retail journal points out:   both the Portas and the Grimsey report call for town centre teams (Grimsey prefers commission) to spearhead a   strategy of renewal. Both want free car parking to attract people back to town centres and both call for an overhaul of the business rate system, a reduction in empty units on high streets,  and a more joined up planning process. The latest report ‘Beyond Retail’ more or less follows suit.

High streets cannot depend on retailing for future prosperity

That is the key message from all three reports , with the latest report Beyond Retail explicitly claiming that we simply have too much retail space. Why has this happened? Because the long recessionary downturn and reduced incomes has combined with the rise of large scale out-of-town shopping centres  and  the migration to e-commerce,  to shrink traditional retail, leaving town centres with too many shops.

Interestingly – and with no small hint of menace – the latest report Beyond Retail sees the solution not in planning curbs to reduce retail space in out of town shopping centres – something that the Portas Report urges -but instead pushes for greater planning flexibility  to tackle ‘fragmented ownership within towns’ and for local authorities to pursue a   “more pro-active and aggressive approach  to using their compulsory purchase order (CPO) powers to facilitate long-term change.” It sees multiple ownership in town centres as a barrier to change that must be addressed head on with a ‘bold and strategic land assembly’  that offers ‘opportunities of scale and worth’   to private investors and property developers.  Private investment can be incentivised by   ‘local authority guarantees to attract low cost infrastructure funding’ and public-private partnerships might even include mentoring and “training local authority  staff involved in the development planning process. … and sharing best practice particularly in relation to development, masterplanning and CPO [compulsory purchase orders] to support town centre remodelling”.

In short the report, while containing helpful, even valuable information, reads like  a blueprint for a land grab. Small independent businesses and landlords out. Big developers backed by big investment in.  All run according to a ‘masterplan’ with local government acting as the foot soldier.

While this contrasts with passing reference to “the value of independent  retailers. …who bring  different offers and attractions which should be welcomed and encouraged”  the ‘masterplan’ leans towards the needs of multiple retailers, not independent retailers. The aim is to   pool and aggregate town centre retail space into larger units which allow major retailers to ‘showroom their full product range and provide an exciting shopper environment’.

The internet, not out-of-town shopping centres is cited as the biggest threat to the high street

High street retail outlets that sell goods which can be digitised – small IT stores that sell  computer games, CD’s and DVD’s , booksellers and newsagents, are especially vulnerable to e-commerce alternatives and the Grimsey  report cites a 13% fall in high street outlet numbers between 2011-13.

Social media platforms such as Facebook and Pinterest, Instagram and Youtube are also offering new e-commerce possibilities as recommendations by friends along with paid advertising, continue to accelerate the trend towards online shopping.

the amount spent online is predicted to rise from 9.7% of all retail spending (excluding automative fuel) in 2012 to 25-35% of sales by 2020

Where is the growth on the high street?

High street growth has instead been in second hand, discount and charity shops as well as pawn brokers, pay-day lenders and betting shops.

More positively, food has also witnessed a return to the high street with independence convenience stores in the high street growing by 17% over the same period and independent food specialists also experiencing more moderate growth (no figures available). Health and beauty outlets have also grown by around 10% and there ‘there are now more nail salons on British high streets than Chinese restaurants’(page 10, Grimsey).

Possible solutions: ‘the networked high street’

All three reports highlight the lack of any coherent strategic vision. Local shops and businesses don’t collaborate in a way that promotes a coherent customer experience.  Mary Portas proposes a Town Team to put in place a visionary, strategic and strong  operational management team that businesses, landlords and the local authority signs up to while the  Grimsey report leans towards a technological solution: the networked high street,   but common to both is an emphasis on collaboration. The Beyond Retail report is less about collaboration and more about co-ercion – a top down command and control approach under a public-private partnership model.

In Grimsey’s eyes, Technology and e-commerce that so threaten the future of the high street,  may also be harnessed to promote  independent businesses. He makes reference to eBay as a leader in the online indie retail revolution, as it provides a simple, low cost option for independent retail start-ups and he  cites anecdotal evidence which suggests that more indies exist on eBay’s servers than exist on the high street.

However it is retail outlets that come together  to operate as a network, who will benefit most from new technology. Current retail outlets operate independently from each other, each with their own website, facebook page or Pinterest account – but there is little attempt to connect with each other or to respond to consumer needs in real time.  For example Facebook may be used by a local business to sell a local product or service but there is no real time high street news or Daily Deals or Daily Events calendar that might alert the day visitor or shopper to what’s on*

*My note: the #lewespound hashtag is a very basic first attempt to move along the lines he suggests: a daily news stream where a single hashtag is used by multiple retail outlets to share news and deals that any shopper could look up on their smartphone as they were coming into town – but for that to work effectively requires local retailers to collaborate as a network as the Grimsey report suggests.

The Grimsey vision includes  not just shops and services  but key agencies including local government and the job centre playing a role in promoting a networked high street. Cloud based technology and tools would enable shoppers to log-in to their personal dashboard, while news of deals and offers would be regulated by the number of shoppers on the high street in real time. For example if it is quiet, you will get a better deal . If it’s late in the day, you may get  last- minute deals on food or flowers as retailers clear up the stock. And if you allow the retailers on the high street to know your email and phone identity, they can offer you hyper-local deals as you walk past their shops on the high street.

The result over time is that the high street comes to operate as a single mutually supportive network of retail outlets that adapts in response to changes in the success of individual shops and services. 

The report Beyond Retail also suggests something along the same lines: the creation of a “virtual representation of the high street”  which allows individual retailers, especially independents, to display and sell their products. Town centres would also operate as ‘click and collect’ hubs where goods ordered online could be collected at depot points located in the town centre (think Argos).

However  the report sees this as part of a wider package of support for small businesses with regard to effective use of marketing and social media. It also requires the provision of free wifi in town centres  ‘to ensure  that towns are well placed to meet the connectivity expectations of the modern consumer’.

The role of indoor and outdoor markets

There is much less talk in the Portas review about the role of technology and more emphasis on the independent retailer.  Her report makes much of the potential for new indoor and outdoor markets to bring a town to life:

“From a bustling ‘roll up, roll up’ veggie market to a thriving organic middle-class farmers’ market. What both these types of endeavours share is people coming together to buy, to sell, to meet, to share, to discover and enjoy each other’s company. It is the oldest type of commerce. But strangely, more than any other type of retailing, I believe markets can serve as fundamental traffic drivers back to our high streets.”

Putting the community first

The second theme in the Grimsey report,   putting community first is also one that is  shared by Mary Portas  who,   bluntly states that ‘I don’t want to live in a Britain that doesn’t care about community’. For Grimsey too, a high-tech future is  combined with town centres as community hubs  encompassing housing, education, arts, entertainment, business space, health and leisure – and some shops. Libraries would double up as co-working spaces with small meeting rooms, a café and a crèche, along 3D printer services for designers and hobbyists. Its central service as a  reading room with digital and printed books would remain but space devoted to bookshelves would be greatly reduced.

But setting aside the more fanciful scenarios he presents (see page 18 onwards of his report) his vision is not so far removed from Portas who  re-imagines  high street  as:

a destination for socialising, culture, health, wellbeing, creativity and learning. Places that will develop and sustain new and existing markets and businesses. The new high streets won’t just be about selling goods. The mix will include shops but could also include housing, offices, sport, schools or other social, commercial and cultural enterprises and meeting places. They should become places where we go to engage with other people in our communities, where shopping is just one small part of a rich mix of activities”.

And she quotes a related report Action For Market Towns which states “High streets and town centres that are fit for the 21st century need to be multifunctional social centres, not simply competitors for stretched consumers”

An alternative vision

None of the reports make easy reading, not least because the obstacles to town centre renewal seem so great – and while all three do contain imaginative proposals  that deserve serious consideration – the latest report ‘Beyond Retail’  seems the least friendly for independent businesses hoping for a better turn of fortune.

And yet ironically, that report contains one example that throws open a completely different possibility. On page 20 of the report it cites Rotherham Borough Council as one of several councils that have sought to develop incubation opportunities for independent businesses such as pop up shops and shared retail space. Wolverhampton, Stockton-on-Tees and Tamworth have also financially supported an ‘Emporium’ in their town centres which also acts as an incubator hub.

This begs the question – never asked – as to why this cannot be a core retail offering for flourishing town centres? The obvious objection is that this approach cannot be sustained by impoverished  local authorities whose services have been cut to the bone. Private investment, in hoc with multiple retailers, are the only alternatives for town centre ‘ renewal’.

Except that we have a new kid on the block – crowdfunding. This alternative form of investment that bypasses banks and other traditional forms of finance is growing in leaps and bounds. Its impact is still only small scale and nowhere near matches the kind of financial firepower of corporate investors but this is a young form of alternative finance which is starting to change the rules of the game. What if, for instance, modest investment by local authorities  could be matchfunded by crowdsourced finance from  local businesses and  people? Communities are key stakeholders, as are Chambers of Commerce, local landlords  and larger businesses with strong local roots. At the very least they could collaborate to carve out a niche, a line in the sand, in which key town centre assets  assume collective ownership that is impervious to predatory private capital from outside.  Strong local ownership ensures that  profits are re-invested back into their communities, not siphoned off to overpaid executives and shareholders who may not even live in the UK, let alone in the communities they claim to serve.

‘Beyond Retai’l presents the future of our town centres as a done deal. It needn’t be – and in many ways its recipes are bad for everything that speaks to local self-dependent resilient economies. Let the report serve as a reference point for some useful insights and case studies – but look elsewhere for solutions that combine community wellbeing with a vibrant independent business sector.

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