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.