This is a blog post I wrote last February originally on fivehombres.com
I have been worried about the state of the UK High Streets for some time. I reckon it was about 15 years ago, maybe 20 at a push that things noticeably changed and they all started to become the same everywhere you went.
I thought it would be helpful to do some quick research into the origins of the phrase ‘High Street’. Apparently ‘high’ has evolved to mean something excellent or of superior rank, and is at least a thousand years old in terms of its use. “High Street” began to be used to describe the thoroughfares containing the main retail areas in villages and towns. Trading points evolved along these routes and gradually the concept of the modern shop and High Street came to pass.
Whilst many High Streets from the 80′s had branded chain stores like WH Smith,Boots, Woolworths, supermarket stores (rather than the retail park sheds of today) many also had a good mix of independent stores, which sold goods such as electrical goods, food, shoes, music, films, clothes, toys, hardware, newsagents and more. Many other shops actually sold services, such as barbers/hairdressers, opticians, vets, doctors, shoe repairs, cinemas, pubs, restaurants, libraries, dry cleaners and so on. Today you are lucky to find anyone other than charity shops, coffee shops, nail bars, take away food, the odd women’s clothing store, hairdressers and a major ‘express’ version of a supermarket.
It feels like there are some key factors that have accelerated the descent of most of the UK’s High Streets into drab, weary and potentially dying places.
Retail rents and rates – it seems that rents levied by private landlords only ever go up and rates levied by the local councils do likewise. Small businesses have less chance of getting started. This means that major chain stores, well financed and staffed with specialist retail site experts at central office, with bulk purchasing power are able to take all the prime locations, hence everything looks like everything else. We get less real choice and also less variety. In short we have clone towns.
Out of town shopping centres – the more we have moved out of towns and cities onto housing estates, the more we have come to rely on our cars, the more the population has increased, then we have tended to build big and bold on the outskirts of towns and cities. There is no room or ability for smaller traders to take space in these enormo parks. Instead we have the same stores, which are normally just bigger versions of the clone town stores, and super sized fast food places. Throw in a multi plex cinemas which are really a series of mini cinemas with poor sound and vision and a supermarket and you have a typical souless trading place.
Supermarkets – the inexorable rise of the supermarkets, mainly Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury’s and Morrisons, has seen a massive choice of wares, products, produce and services availble to all of us. Unlike every other instance of ‘parasitic socio economic georgraphic theory’ whereby you used to get true competition on a High Street through similar stores being able to locate next to each other, supermarkets don’t play that game. They never locate anywhere near each other, they just tell you they are more competitive than their rivals and once you are in, they have you.
The Internet – It is no surprise that e-commerce has revolutionised our shopping. This has virtually killed off the music retailers and is having a damaging effect on books, films, video games and consumer electronics.
Time – this is a factor that is effecting everyone. With all the choices we have nowadays, we simply don’t have the time to invest in trawling around a number of shops looking for our wares. Under one roof and the illusion of value is far more appealing, hence the empires of WalMart and Tesco have risen to a position of absolute power in retailing.
These factors and more are unlikely to reverse anytime soon, so maybe it is best if there are some policies which Governement, local and national, can put in place to revive these places before they are lost forever?
I want to think about some simple ideas which could revive these High Streets and make them socially more relevant. Back soon.