Time is running out for the High Street – can it be saved?

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An image of Hawick High Street, cars parked either side of a road in front of shops.
Hawick High Street Image from Wikimedia Commons

By Professor Sarah Montano and Dr Inci Toral, Department of Marketing, Birmingham Business School

Labour has recently announced a series of proposals to revive the high street. Once again, the call is that we have moments left to save the dying high street. Whilst the proposals range from business rates, property taxation and tackling shoplifting we argue that finances are only one part of the solution, for our high streets to flourish rather than flounder, they must be a welcoming place that customers want to visit.

Those of us who are of a certain age will remember being sent to the shops at the end of the road by your Nan for ‘a message’, also known as getting the groceries! The high street is a British institution that is both familiar and comforting to us. High streets hold a special place in our hearts, from nipping out to by a pint of milk and then stopping for a pint, to buying an emergency ‘baby-gro’ for a new baby. High streets have been a reassuring presence in our lives that will always be there for us. In their heyday, high streets, in the city centre or in town were once the jewel of the urban settings where everyone put on their best outfits and went for shopping, dining meeting with friends, not just accomplish errands.

However, for at least the last decade we have heard the refrain that we “must save our high streets” that the “high street is dying.” With the recent loss of 400 Wilko stores from our high streets we have all got used to seeing the high street become deserted with abandoned shops and boarded up buildings. In 2022 Ordinance Survey data showed that department stores had declined by 13.4% but that tattoo studios increased by 8.3% and hair and beauty services by 5.9%. With 2000 more cafes, 4,600 fast-food outlets and 700 more pubs and bars, this shows that eating out is a key reason to visit your local area! In 2023, it was found that weekend shopping was back with a 9.7% increase in footfall!

While the increase in online shopping and changing consumer trends seem to be the most relevant causes of the demise of the high streets, the issues are multi-faceted, such as high business rents, cost of living crisis, retailers’ response to consumer preferences are a few of these. However, we should remember that online sales post pandemic are holding relatively steady at about one quarter of all retail sales, the latest March data was 25.4%.

Is it too late, or can we save our high streets?

The focus on high streets is often on shops and retail outlets, but our high streets are so much more. The places that we regularly visit such as a hair salon, coffee shop or pub become a home away from home or what we call a ‘third place’. Third places are important as this where we make our communities and our memories, we build our connections with others.

Perhaps, high streets as they were fond memories of the past and we need a brand-new approach to restore back their glory. As the Canadian urban planner Brent Toderian says, we need to change how we think about our high streets and start thinking about what people love about them, what makes them go to the high street and what do they enjoy doing. All the other considerations such as how many people pass from the street, how many cars we can park should be secondary to what would attract people to come back the high streets.

The proposals from Labour at first glance sound like they may help our high streets, however, as we have demonstrated people have to want to visit or with the convenience of online any product is just a click away! We also need innovate to ensure that we attract the next generation of entrepreneurs reforming business rates may be a start but setting up a business is expensive – so where is the support for people with great ideas?  Even Amazon started off with one book in 1995! What makes people to come back?

Since the pandemic, we started to see some new formats on our high streets. Pop-Up shops are one way to offer entrepreneurs a way to meet their customers and it fills up an empty unit! Other ideas came from retailers converting their outlets into meeting hubs, with shows on stage, wellbeing activities offered for free and even panel discussions from opinion leaders to share with the public. The aim is to bring people back to the high street, the rest will follow naturally.

Safety is important and we know that shoplifting and violence to shop workers has significantly increased with shoplifting reaching a record high in England and Wales. Any proposals to make staff and customers feel safe are welcoming however there must be tangible results. Visiting your high street also needs to be accessible and easy, and with the problems with public transport this is not always possible. A joined-up approach needs to be taken to ensure that those who want to get to the high streets can do so. There is also much debate about car parking charges – too expensive and customers are put off from visiting so they go to the local retail park where parking is free. Recently Gavin Peck, CEO of The Works, stated that the hike in parking fees was fundamentally damaging the high street. We also need to think about the practicalities of shopping, wrestling a toddler and a baby in a pram is tricky, time consuming and stressful, so parents may want to take the car. Finally, mixed use spaces may be another way to revive the high street. The high street should be a place where people want to be. They should offer more than just shopping such as a meeting hub, that you can view the new trends, enjoy an arts exhibition, eat, drink and shop at the same time. The focus should be given to the entire experience, not just issues in isolation. Given cost-of-living pressures, not everyone can afford to spend, but if we look at encouraging mixed-use High streets with community centres and other cultural and social activities available, then people will feel welcomed and want to visit.

In conclusion, whilst Labour’s proposals are welcome and timely we must think in a holistic way about developing our much-loved high streets and innovate radically, not just tweak taxes and rates, as once they are gone, they will be gone forever. Our high streets are our communities, and we need them more than ever.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham.


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