Over the last year I have increasingly argued that with the withdrawal of many multiple retailers from many high streets we are entering a period a major structural change in consumer behaviour and retail opportunities. This will not necessarily be a simple process and it certainly won’t be a painless one. Landlords and property owners amongst many others will have to adjust to this new reality and we will all have to rethink what we expect from town centres and high streets.
But what will this new reality look like? We can all retreat back to the nostalgic views of a high street that probably never really existed, but is this really going to happen across the country and on the scale to replace all our high streets? This seems unlikely. Instead there seems to be a consensus around at least two dimensions:
- We have to make the most of what we have by focusing on the concentrated core of our high streets – and that means thinking not only about ground floors, but upper floors, and not only thinking about retailing but a range of uses that attract people. Beyond this core we will have to find active different uses for vacant sites;
- There is not a new wave of multiple retailers out there to fill the voids, but rather we can expect local solutions and localisation to play a stronger role in providing services for the local population. When the large players leave town, then local players need to fill the void, and seem increasingly keen to do so. There is real interest in local solutions and community activities.
One of the things that has struck me when I have visited various other countries including parts of the USA is the availability of local products and services in many towns. This takes a variety of forms but one which keeps recurring is the local craft or artists store – often run on a co-operative or collaborative mutual model. They take various guises but offer local distinctive products that reflect and promote the place. Often they are exceptionally high quality and foster a sense of engagement between people and place and with the creators of the pieces on sale.
Localisation in the UK may not take only this form, and does face many difficulties arising in many cases from the property market and the speed of adjustment that it can incorporate. When landlords and owners are not local, they can often be blind to what is happening and what could happen in particular towns. Risk taking, especially at the current time is not necessarily flavour of the month.
So how do we get local creative solutions to add something distinctive to town centres? Made in Stirling has done just that, and represents a starting point in providing distinctiveness and a statement about a place.
Originally conceived as a pop-up shop, Made in Stirling was the first project of the newly formed Stirling Creative Industries Forum (SCIF) and links in with the wider Start Up Street initiative, which is aimed at revitalising the city centre by bringing new and interesting uses to vacant commercial property.
The pop-up shop provided retail and display space for the best work by local artists, photographers, designers and artisans. It provided information on ‘what’s on’, with daily listings of upcoming cultural and creative events across Stirling, promoting creative venues and activities across the Stirling area.
After running in a secondary site over the summer, Made in Stirling moved to a central site in King Street in the late Autumn. It provided a different face for the search for gifts and presents and solved a couple of my Christmas headaches. Now under the wing of Creative Stirling it is hoped that this showcase for local craft and talent will go from strength to strength. Getting to this point has not been without issues and many hurdles remain in establishing and maintaining such initiatives, but they are essential if we are not to have vacant boarded up store fronts and urban spaces, yet talent and creativity crying out for an opportunity to showcase themselves.
It is one example of the local enthusiasm and talent that is available to fill the many voids in our town centres. There are others all over Scotland. What we desperately need is a more sustainable mechanism of getting them started and established, as our high streets and town centres adjust to the new structural normality.