What next for our high streets?

Many words and much energy have been focused on saving the high street. But after many years of trials and tribulations, do we really need it any more?

This may seem an inflammatory question posed just to hook you in, but the question is a real one. Who does today’s high street really serve?

Seemingly not a week goes by without news of either the demise or decline of another high street brand.

Over the past decade and more, we have lost long term family favourites such as Woolworths, British Home Stores and Athena. And most recently those highlighting struggles in their business have included House of Fraser, Mothercare and Poundland.

So, what is going wrong? Is there something catastrophically amiss with all of their business plans? Or is there more to it than that?

Ultimately, the high street has to be a destination that the public wants to visit and as towns and cities have grown, most people do not live close by. So they need to be given a reason to go there.

With the massive growth of online shopping, and the likes of Amazon increasingly becoming a one-stop-shop for all retail needs, many people ask why they should visit the high street.

Amazon themselves are now providing grocery products, so there is no sign of their growing retail dominance stopping any time soon. And it wouldn’t be too doom-mongering to suggest that there could be more high profile victims of their success in the offing.

Taking Plymouth as a case in point, the opening of the Drake Circus shopping centre had already left many shoppers needing a good reason to brave the elements and shop elsewhere in the city centre.

And with the imminent closure of the city’s branch of House of Fraser – one of 31 stores the company is closing across the UK – there will be one fewer store to draw them down the high street.

The House of Fraser brand, like many one-time popular department stores, has struggled to identify a product assortment that enables them to differentiate themselves from their competitors and pull customers (and their spending power) through their doors.

The simple fact remains that the UK high street, House of Fraser and Plymouth’s retail experience all face the same problem. How do they respond to a fundamental change in consumer behaviour?

They know they must, and that they can no more ignore it than a child building a sand castle on the beach, because the tidal wave of change cannot be ignored.

Some consumers do still want a shopping experience. But it has to be a genuine experience, a pleasurable reason to visit the stores.

Smaller national chains and independent stores are finding ways to survive by delivering superior customer service.

But perhaps larger stores could do so by focusing on making the visit more memorable, taking shopping from a necessary or essential chore into the realm of entertainment.

Such entertainment driven approaches are hard to achieve on a budget, and as a result are easier to realise in London’s Oxford Street with its heavier footfall than in Plymouth’s already struggling city centre.

There has been much said in the media already about the negative impact of the high street’s ongoing struggles, and particularly public upset at the loss of some of their regular haunts. But the high street will not survive on good intentions alone.

It is undoubtedly true that online shopping excludes some members of the public, most notably the elderly and those without access to a computer or smartphone, but this fact is not enough to halt the demise of the high street.

It is only by making the high street more relevant to the modern consumer that that can be achieved. The solutions need to be found through dedicated market research as it is only though retailers having a better understanding of their customers, that they will be able to have any chance of giving them what they want.

As unpalatable as it is likely to be for retail landlords, consideration should also be given to dropping the rents they demand.

Finding a tenant to pay the rents they want is likely to become increasingly challenging for the aforementioned reasons, and as a result shop units of varying shapes and sizes are likely to sit vacant for longer.

Therefore, a more sustainable solution may be one based on lower rent for smaller units.

A concentration of niche stores servicing narrower needs, similar but on a slightly grander scale than what can be found in smaller towns and villages, is more likely to provide consumers with a reason to visit.

This may sound like the department store deconstructed, but individual stores will find it easier to service multiple segments than a single store that is increasingly likely to struggle to understand its typical customer.

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