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The Changing Face Of The High Street
Andrew Mear
The high street has seen massive change over the past 50 years. The development of out of town shopping centres was initially seen as its death knell, then the massive expansion of retail brands created homogenous high streets across the UK. Finally, the birth and expansion of the internet over the past 30 years has put independent traders, chain stores and department stores under even more pressure.

Figures suggest that around 75% of the population now regularly purchase online, so the way we shop − along with the types of goods we want to buy − has dramatically changed, making it imperative our high streets adapt to stay relevant. Since the move to online shopping, major retailers with massive shopping areas have shown signs of a long slow death – and if they’ve failed to back up sales on the internet an inevitable downward spiral has happened. The business model for the high street just doesn’t work if costs outstrip income, whereas the internet allows income to outstrip costs.

The issue is complex as currently we have an internet shopping system that has been allowed to run rough shod over everything that has gone before. How can a retailer compete and survive if online offers more choice, more convenience, a better price and delivered to your door? Traditionally you would pay more for a service like this, and yet these days you pay less, which has effectively turned our nation of shop keepers into a nation of delivery drivers.

We recently had a business rates review which made certain changes, however this archaic system relating back to 1571 surely needs review further to address the question why internet-based businesses don’t pay business rate internet taxes which are akin to the bricks and mortar system?

That aside we still need to consider what will make our high streets relevant again? Essentially its offer must make people feel a desire and drive to visit it – the high street must provide something they can’t get elsewhere. More than 150 years ago the idea of leisure was the preserve of the upper classes. Now it has become a ubiquitous part of daily life and it is my view that the leisure and service industry must become part of the solution. People are social animals and enjoy sharing experiences together it is with this simple concept we can start to design high streets that, in generations to come, people will want and need to visit.

For example, Skipton is a thriving town, but it isn’t immune to the changes in society. As the ‘Gateway to the Dales’, with a castle and a canal, it offers a fantastic mix in a great location − but this still isn’t enough and it too must continually adapt its offer. Developing a leisure experience comprising hospitality and entertainment that encourages local people and tourists to visit, is essential. In addition there must be a drive to encourage people to start living in our town centres again.

For a long time, property investors have rented out ground floor space to retailers whilst upper floors remained empty. More recently, as the value of rents has dropped and business rates legislation has changed, the need to regain lost revenues has presented the idea of redeveloping upper floors for residential use − especially now demand for office space has also become victim to the technological revolution.

There has been an under supply of residential property for many decades and developing vacant town centre spaces in new ways could help remedy some of this demand. If this results in more people living in our historic retail districts there will also be more people wanting to access services in these areas. A drive to attract people to live in our town centres would also dovetail neatly with the development of a leisure and nighttime economy, as people now expect access to services way beyond the traditional 9-5.

Positioning the high street as a leisure destination is not new, as George Clay a Yorkshire man born in 1720, described as a ‘middling sort’, who moved to London, used newspaper advertising in 1743 to encourage the new Georgian social class to pay to visit a grand clock he had built. In the 1740s this was revolutionary, and although people wouldn’t necessarily pay to visit a clock today, we need a similar revolution in which the high street starts to embrace the needs of today’s leisure customers.

The high street is a changing feast and many more elements need to be considered to provide an experience that offers what people want. The offer is key as is a dedication to providing an environment in which people want to live. This might include a changing programme of events, a wide range of bars and eateries, and a variety of museums, galleries, cinemas and parkland.

The electronic revolution must be seen as a positive for the high street as the power of social media can really influence the decisions people make as to where they spend their money. It’s a power we need to harness if we are to bring harmony and purpose back to our high streets.

This article was written by Andrew Mear, MD Eagerlux and San Pedro Properties

The Changing Face Of The High Street, 25th October 2018, 15:04 PM