Is it time for a radical rethink of the high street?
If you type ‘the future of the high street’ into Google (and this probably works on Bing and all the others too) you get almost five million results. And if the first page of search results is anything to go by, they’re five million gloomy results.
Some of the words that appear in news headlines from those results include ‘fear’, ‘struggling’, ‘killed’ and of course ‘gloomy’. It really does make for depressing reading. But maybe we’re all looking at this from an unnecessarily negative perspective. Maybe part of the problem is the words we’re using – including calling it the high street.
It’s a name that conjures up a very particular image. So much so that ‘the high street’ has come to mean ‘a place with shops’ – it’s what’s known as a metonym. If we only think about them as retail-centred destinations, could we be part of the problem facing Britain’s high streets? I think it’s possible.
It reminds me a little of the phenomenon of nominative determinism, where people end up in jobs that seem to fit their name particularly well. Like the Belgian footballer Mark De Man or the gardener Bob Flowerdew. But while examples like that aren’t much more than amusing, there is a problem with the way we use words to define something.
When you’re a hammer every problem looks like a nail
If I think shops when you say high street, is it any surprise all my ideas about regenerating the high street are focused around retail? It’s the kind of instinctive reaction that seems completely appropriate, but which could actually be standing in the way of new ways of thinking.
And maybe, just maybe, that’s where some of the problems with the regeneration of the high street keep coming from. Because instead of focusing on what the community’s needs are, everyone (planners, advisers, you name it) just focus on shops.
For example, the Guardian newspaper recently reported that “a cross-party group of MPs is to investigate how to revive England’s ailing town centres which are under increasing threat from online shopping and the financial problems facing some of the biggest high street names.” The MPs want to hear suggestions from people who have a vision for what town centres and high streets might look like in the year 2030.
I hope someone has the vision to see beyond things like “under increasing threat from online shopping” as they could all too easily skew their thinking.
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Something else that recently caught my attention was the story that Thomas Cook may sell its Club 18-30 holiday brand. Famous for lewdness and debauchery in sunny locations, the allure of Club 18-30 has waned recently. One reason, apparently is that younger holidaymakers are more interested in sharing interesting and glamorous photos on Instagram than they are in having a booze-fuelled vacation.
These two things – the high street doom and gloom and the influence of the Instagram generation on tourism businesses – have been rolling around inside my head for a while. I keep thinking there might be a connection between them.
Many of the big-name department stores are making a real effort to make themselves somewhere fun to visit – product demonstrations, wine tasting, prosecco evenings, you name it. There’s more emphasis on the experience and less on the need for a retail transaction. And earlier this month in Blackburn, around 60,000 visited the Festival of Making, a non-retail event held in the centre of town. The organisers estimate something in the region of £1 million was spent by visitors to the two-day event.
That name, the Festival of Making, will have been chosen with great care. Its an example of the importance of words. It could have been called something like The Producers’ Market, for example. But the word festival implies there’s more going on than shopping. Which, of course, there was.
I don’t imagine I’ll be submitting any ideas to the cross-party group of MPs looking into the future of high streets. But if I did, I think probably focus on getting away from the language of the past, because it leads us into out-moded ways of thinking. If shoppers aren’t shopping on the high street as much anymore perhaps it’s time to accept that fact, stop being gloomy about things and start to offer something new.
Putting the high street – or whatever we should call it – back at the heart of local communities is going to mean listening to what those communities want, then collaborating (local authorities, central government, planning teams, retail and distribution companies, leisure providers) to deliver it. And of course, shops will always be an important part of that. But they need to be just one part. The rest of it will need to be all about creating a cohesive and appealing place to visit.
This article first appeared in my regular thought leadership column for the London-based startup Parcelly.