Today: the High Street

Today, the Today programme on Radio 4 is running two opposing views of the high street and soliciting views about the state of, the memories of, and the future of Britain’s high street.These will feed into a series of reports later this month.

On the one view we have an attack on the bland, uniform shopping centres (which are not central and not interesting) and on the other, wonderment as to why anyone would do anything else than use the internet (given its convenience and choice). Nostalgia versus technology.

But what caught my eye were the following comments:

“It has been a difficult time for the shops in Britain’s city centres. Not only has the ease of online shopping persuaded people to stay at home, but the recession and stagnation of the UK economy has left people with less money to spend when they do hit the shops.

Woolworths was one of the first casualties of the recession when it went bust in 2008. Since then, a steady stream of store stalwarts have vanished from our town centres. Zavvi and Borders have gone, HMV is shrinking and Habitat are closing all of their shops outside of London.”

Leaving aside the issue of seeing the problems of the high street as only functions of the recession and the internet, I find it interesting that the moment they start talking about high streets, they immediately go on to think about city centres. Now I know it is only a piece on a web site, but are city centres really what our concern about “high streets” is all about? Surely the issue with high streets is the state of towns and other urban (and to some extent rural) centres up and down the land – the city centres are looking after themselves.

And then there’s Woolworths – first casualty of the recession. Well, perhaps not.  I’ve just been reading Paul Seaton’s book “A Sixpenny Romance: celebrating a century of value at Woolworths” (ISBN 9780956382702) and towards the end he produces some interesting figures (p181) :

In 1981 Woolworths had 15m customers per week in the UK

In 2001 Woolworths had 7m customers per week in the UK

In 2008 this figure had shrunk to 4.5 million.

So in just over a quarter of a century Woolworths had “lost” 70% of its customers.  The current recession might have been the coup de grace, but the real failings lie not in the recession but well before this.

The Woolworths story also tells us that retailing is about meeting changing customer needs and expectations. At the same time Woolworths were declining, so Wilkinsons and Poundland to name just two were emerging and prospering in roughly the same consumer market.

So the future of the high street has not to be in nostalgic yearnings, but in what customers of today want. And those consumers are not just worried about the recession or shopping on the internet; they are different cultures, social and other behaviours than before.

We need to re-imagine the high street, not re-create it.

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 Education and Students and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh
This entry was posted in Consumer Change, High Streets, Internet shopping, Places, Retail Failure, Town Centres, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Today: the High Street

  1. Can’t agree more – this is so true, another piece a few days ago talking about the decline of Aberdeen’s High Street, which when you look back historically there were 2 High Streets. George Street, anchored by Woolworth’s, HoF and Norco and Union Street, which had all the stores, Littlewoods, BHS, HMV, Woolworth’s and Watt and Grant. HoF left the city many years ago due to declining trade– It is now set to return in a new format.

    House of Fraser to open in Aberdeen’s Union Square
    New department store for shopping centre
    By Ruth Warrander
    Published: 04/08/2011
    EXPANDING: Aberdeen’s Union Square.
    A LEADING department store is set to make a comeback in Aberdeen – promising to bring a host of top fashion brands with it.
    House of Fraser is opening a shop in the Union Square complex.
    It has been nine years since the famous Scottish chain, which was first established in Glasgow, closed its department store on the corner of Aberdeen’s Union Street and Market Street.

  2. Leigh Sparks says:

    What I thought interesting about the HoF announcement for Aberdeen – or what ir ea dof it online and in Retail Week – is that the new format will be a “Click and Collect” store. No details yet, but interestign how retailers are beginning to experiment more with aspects of the “blended” channel. Can click and collect work in high streets? And as stand-alone or within existing stores as a strong feature?

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