The Death of the Great British High-Street

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I live in what might be considered a ‘rural location’ – we’re not quite in the countryside, but we are a small town right on the edge of it, run by a small council. The local dramas consist of people running over hedgehogs and people threatening war over dog poop, when I wish they would actually consist of concerns for the local economy and the future viability of local businesses.

We have a large high-street, but it’s gone the way of most British High Streets – it primarily consists of charity shops, hairdressers (at least 7 in one small town.), betting shops, and sales agents. Quite a few of the units are office and showroom spaces too – there’s nothing wrong with this, but it presents a big problem – the high street no longer welcomes browsing and casual footfall.

Unless you’re interested in charity shopping or the small smattering of clothing and jewellery shops, there’s no reason for you to spend an afternoon in town; no reason for you to walk up and down the high-street, looking in windows and picking up a few treats, because there’s very little to tempt an impulse buy. The majority of shops; the florists and the butchers, although wonderful, are shops where customers likely enter already with an intentional, pre-planned purchase in mind.

Even these pre-meditated shopping establishments need ‘browsable’ shops as neighbours to encourage more local footfall on the high-street, so that people might remember their brands and view their produce through a window, making a mental note to visit in the future.

There are a few hidden gems; the local deli, a cute gift shop and a vintage and antiques shop, but they’re hidden amongst the masses.

My local town has a mostly middle-class, middle-income demographic, more than enough potential market to make a few more smaller, boutique and independent businesses viable. Although many would argue it’s over-60s population is too high to warrant such a thing, I personally consider that claim somewhat false – we host a very large high school and we’re often marketed as a great place for young families to buy a nice starter home.

So what is the problem?

Rents and Rates

Perhaps it’s the rents. Once upon a time I dreamed of opening a shop on the high-street near my home, but a quick analysis of predicted finances, and that dream met it’s reality check. One small unit came in at £19,000 per annum, before business rates. Another 2nd floor office suggested offers in the region of £11,000 per annum. We’re a small town with a parking problem. People use us as a commuters parking lot. We’re heavily gridlocked as soon as the motorway has congestion, and the general footfall is low. There’s very few local events run by the council to stimulate the economy and next to no public relations work to market us as a nice place to visit.

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Cold weather puts people off instantly, and if you were selling non-essentials, your sales would be painfully low on weekdays. If we’re going to over-simplify things, that’s about 104 days of weekends to make more than £19,000 in income, which means about £183 in sales every single one of those days, before you even consider your other business overheads, utilities bills, business rates, doing up the shop, advertising, stock, cost of sales and more. How exactly would a boutique in a town with little footfall pull off that feat?

Business rates and rents far exceed the potential profits that a small business could make in most of our out-of-city high-street shops these days.

Except landlords have no reason to drop the rates – the average landlord has no particular interest in supporting local creatives, especially when the risks of renting to new, small, creative businesses are so high. With new businesses you might not have proof of steady sales and income, all you have is an idea and predicted finances. A charity shop or branded chain store however, is relatively risk free. Even if the shop doesn’t make a profit, their rents will be covered by a their head office until they decide to move on, and charity shops have this benefit plus the fact they don’t need to pay business rates, giving them much more income in reserve for rents.

It seems the only thing that could save this situation is for town councils and the government to step in and offer some sort of financial backing to put small businesses in a less risky position. That needs to be combined with campaigns that encourage communities to support their local independents, and persuade landlords of the benefits of a creative and diverse high street.

Perhaps there should also be backing for community groups who want to revive old and derelict buildings in their local area, to be renovated into small, affordable units for small businesses.

But then we need to open another barrel of worms –

Town Culture

Our little town has a Facebook group. What started as a happy place for sharing historical pictures, happy memories, local initiatives and ideas, soon descended into a hub for nosy neighbours, complaints and desperate business spam-advertising. If you’re going to encourage a thriving and exciting high-street, where local entrepreneurs can try out new ideas and experiment with creativity, you’re going to have to have two things from the the local community; encouraging support and a positive general consensus.

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I’ve witnessed moments where people have brought up the high-street for discussion in the public domain, and have been met with criticism; the culture of ‘I can get it cheaper at home bargains’. (don’t forget to read our article on this.)

High-streets often need balance if there is a variety of socio-economic groups in the surrounding area; bargain shops and boutiques alike, but if the supporters of one type of commerce refuse to acknowledge the need for the other, no progress is made in the resulting fight. What good is democracy in public opinion if the public isn’t willing to compromise for the fact so many of us have different needs in our high-street?

The media (often funded by high-budget PR campaigns from these retail giants) has started a price war and culture for ‘cheaper is better’, leaving many to believe that there’s no point in shopping with slightly more expensive independent businesses, but in doing so, we’re eliminating all forms of competition for these retail giants, and destroying the diversity of our high-street.

Which brings me back to the point of culture; if your local community only wants to see more chain businesses, it can be incredibly difficult to fight the tide and provide support for independents.

So where do we go from here? Will independents forever have to sit online, and all of our shopping will be done from home? Does the high-street really have a place in modern culture?

Let’s consider something else – experience stores. This was a trend that emerged within the past few years – high street stores were often found to not be making a profit, but still maintained a good footfall. People still enjoy shopping – it’s a hobby as much as a necessity; the experience is essential if we’re going to see and feel what we buy in real life.

Some of my favourite TV shows; Mr Selfridge and The Paradise still evoke that feeling of the ‘romance of shopping’, something which I myself am quite passionate about. The idea of spoiling yourself with beautifully made things, the feel of soft fabrics on well made clothing, the scent of fresh baking in a bakery, the glorious colours of homewares in real life – these things cannot be replicated online.

The Experience Store

So with this in mind, experience stores emerged – shops which are more of a marketing resource than a sales venue. The idea is to seduce the potential customer and make them fall in love with your products.

With so much variety and choice for where to spend their money these days, consumers find it harder to part with their hard earned cash, so sometimes it takes several ‘touch points’ before they commit to buying. The experience store is just one of these touch points, and the website might be the final sale. This still makes the store and the high-street important and exciting, but the sales revenues that meet the rent come from online.

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A physical store also offers an important branding resource – even if you have a beautiful website, the behind the scenes of online shopping is usually just a dreary warehouse and a lot of cardboard boxes – having a store gives you an opportunity to create yet more intrigue and desirability about your brand, with photos of your staff / brand ambassadors, your shop interiors and window displays at the forefront of your social media.

Is there a place for this type of shop in a small town? Or if there only room for things which people deem a necessity?

The jury’s out, but at Pep we believe there’s still a reason for our high-streets, if only we’ll campaign to save them.

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