It’s been coming for a while now, but the long slow decline of the traditional high street seems to have shifted up a gear in 2018 and there is very little on the horizon to suggest there is a reverse option.
Bricks and mortar retailers large and small have enjoyed prime city centre locations literally since the first human settlements were established thousands of years ago, and they have enjoyed a pretty good run since, but the second half of the last century was their peak, and since then the gathering of a perfect storm has put them at a real existential threat. Firstly the rapid growth in car ownership post war fueled the construction of road networks that bypassed town centres, done in part to take noisy, smelly polluting traffic away from historic towns, villages and cities, the problem of course was that they tended to be driven by customers vital to the survival of the high street. Naturally what followed were the giant, out if town retail parks. Easy to get to, free to park close to, and it allowed retailers to build according to their needs, rather than squeeze into centuries old buildings in the centre.
So far, so bad. Then, of course began the slow rise in online shopping. Initially wary of a world they didn’t know, shoppers started with perhaps a book or a CD purchase, perhaps concert tickets, or a holiday. Trust built and the appeal widened as did availability. Retailers attempted to reassure themselves that shoppers would be happy to pay a little more for the personal experience, or the ability to see what it was they were about to buy. In economics where little is certain there is one thing you can pretty much rely on. Cheap wins, almost always. Shoppers would go to a bricks and mortar retailer, see what they wanted and then go and buy it cheaper online. Now they tend to bypass that step. Who really needs to see a fridge or a camera, or kitchen widget before you buy when you can read a handful of reviews, make a few clicks and somebody will bring it to you in a couple of days, and save you a few bucks in the process?
The growth in delivery infrastructure, a wider choice than ever, and even talk of delivery by personalised drone in a matter of hours is making it increasingly difficult to see any competitive edge that the high street has over the online retail experience.
The higher costs of doing business is also hampering traditional high street operators. Inflated staff costs, rentals, shop fittings and taxes all subtract from the bottom line, and look like a millstone in comparison to a behemoth purpose built distribution centre, staffed by robots, built on brownfield sites next to a motorway junction.
Take a walk down the high street next time you are in town and ask yourself how many of the shops you see wouldn’t work better online. Not many I’ll bet. It’s seems obvious that sooner rather than later clicks are going to beat bricks into the weeds.
So what are we going to do with our beautiful, historic, formerly bustling high streets if we don’t want to see them deteriorate into derelict urban deserts? So far the plan seems to be to reduce rents as far as possible and cross your fingers. It’s not going to work, we need to go right back to basics here. Remember your walk along the high street?, there is one group of retailers that isn’t going online anytime soon. People like to eat and drink, more or less when it occurs to them to do it, and mostly they still seem to like doing it in the centre of town, rather than next to a roundabout on a bypass, so there is a little glimmer of hope. What the high street needs is people. Instead of chasing lower and lower retail rents, landlords need to renovate tired shops and their stockrooms and staff canteens into residential accomodation. Imagine a town centre with thousands of people living a few doors down from the bakery, coffee shop, restaurant or pub. It would reinvigorate these historic towns with a buzz of people rarely seen in the past couple of decades, and those few retailers whose businesses can’t be moved online would thrive, while drones deliver your groceries to your door to save you the bother of fetching your own cat food. It all sounds like a really rather pleasant place, if we choose to make it.
By Phil McCoffers