One of the recurring themes within this blog, and some of the writings and papers it has reported on, is the inexactitude of many of the terms and concepts that we use in discussing retail change. Going beyond that, I have also sometimes mused on the ‘right’ questions to ask about retail change, high streets and town centres.
I was therefore very grateful to the Marketing and Retail Management Group at the University of Surrey for an invitation to present a seminar on high streets; one I duly took up last week. The audience can make up their own minds about what I said, but I certainly welcomed the chance to think about some of the issues.
The presentation itself, entitled ‘Where Are You From: On high streets and town centres’ is available for anyone to download in overhead form here. There is also the full video presentation (lasting an hour or so) available via Surrey (though that is purely for any insomniacs).
So, to save you the pain of listening to my presentation, what were my main themes?
The first was a reflection on the way in which high streets and town centres have become synonymous, to the detriment of debate and analysis. We don’t just have a high street/retail problem, but a problem about places and we won’t solve the latter by only addressing the former.
Secondly, I pointed to the differences between the Fraser Review in Scotland and other reports (Portas/Grimsey) and in the various Government responses and actions. The wider, societal, community Scottish approach is to be welcomed in my view and does attempt to address the wider issues.
Thirdly, and returning to retail itself, we discussed the vocabulary we use, such as vacancy and indeed town centre. Simple concepts need to be examined thoroughly and consistently and we need to define our language and become more certain over what we mean. In our work with the LDC – and especially now our PhD student is in place and beginning work – we are seeking the new measures needed and building new consistent concepts for consideration and analysis.
Finally, I discussed some of our work at Stirling and focused on two aspects. First the effort in projects such as Understanding Scottish Places, which is opening up data on a national level allowing consistent comparison and understanding of Scotland’s 479 towns. It is going to be a massive first step, but going beyond that with further data will add even more value. Secondly, the work we have set out in Stirling over many years is now coming to some fruition. For over 15 years we have been building some longitudinal data bases on aspects of retail and consumer change and are now in position to fully exploit these. This work, a long time in gestation, seems to me to offer superior potential to one-off snapshot style attempts to focus on change.
Overlaying all of this was my main theme: people relate to places (towns) and not high streets alone and to understand the place of the high street we have to understand its context, situation and relationships.
Anyhow, thanks to Surrey for the invitation and for listening and engaging.