Mary Portas and High Streets – Good Luck!

Well, at least this celebrity has worked in retailing and has had some success, albeit most notably on a makeover programme. The last thing high streets and town centres need is simply a makeover. But anyhow, the UK Government has decided that English high streets need a sprinkling of the Queen of Shops’ magic.  So… good luck, we certainly know they need it.

So, Mary, you have one year, starting from now … … … to get high streets and town centres to come to terms with 50 years of economic and social change, systemic neglect, a system biased towards more productive, new build, out of town retail and other activities and the coming onslaught of mobile and online shopping, consuming and living. Perhaps luck doesn’t quite come into it?

High streets and town centres can be great places, but they cannot be the rose-tinted nostalgic vision of some mythical past, that for some passes as utopia. Consumers have changed, and are changing still, at a speed and in ways that we barely comprehend. Town centres, and high streets within them, have to have compelling reasons to be part of that future, not simply a claim that in the past “they were nice places”.

Punishing or taxing out-of-town activities alone rather misses the point; it is not the answer. Positive reasons for business to develop (quickly) in town centres are required. Better management, tax regimes assisting in-town (re)development, recognition that the past cannot all be saved (but the best bits must be), and the alignment and focus of all town centre finance streams, as well as making it easier and cheaper to come to and stay in town; they are all needed. The vested interests and barriers to progress in high streets and town centres have to be removed.

The alternative? Well consumers already find out-of-town, on-the-move or in-home suits their needs better, be it for retail, office, cinema, pub, restaurant or pretty much anything else. They find mobile and internet activities far more attractive in their lives – click and collect anyone? How do we combine these trends to help high streets? Solve that and we may begin to move forward.

Is there some light in this? The rapid domino decline and withdrawal of multiple retailers from locations “down the retail hierarchy” offers opportunities for localism and entrepreneurialism, if landlords and others will play ball. Diversity and discovery could become fashionable again. What is needed is the will to make it easier to open and trade, and some encouragement for those with good retail ideas or already in business. Maybe here we are at a tipping point and some further incentive and support (for Scotland a new style Town Centre Regeneration Fund perhaps in association with other changes to funding and organisation) might make a difference.

There are no simple solutions in town centres and high streets, however much we crave the single “magic bullet”; economic and social change and the will of consumers sees to that. But, we can help change the dynamic, though never by simply wishing for the past to return or penalising the successful. If nothing else Mary Portas brings energy and profile, with the potential to galvanise and enthuse. It is much-needed, as the clock is ticking in so many ways …

About Leigh Sparks

I am Professor of Retail Studies at the Institute for Retail Studies, University of Stirling, where I research and teach aspects of retailing and retail supply chains, alongside various colleagues. I am Chair of Scotland's Towns Partnership. I am also a Deputy Principal of the University, with responsibility for Internationalisation and Graduate Studies.
This entry was posted in Consumer Change, Government, High Streets, Mary Portas, Retail Policy, Scotland's Town and High Streets, Town Centres and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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